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Jetsetter Guides

First-Timer’s Guide to Amsterdam

From canal walks to cheese tastings, bike trips to brown cafés, Amsterdam newbie Leigh Crandall susses out the essential things to eat, see and do for first time visitors to the Netherlands’ capital city

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Pedal Through Vondelpark and Museum Hop

If you want to experience Amsterdam like a local, rent a bike. Everyone zips around on two wheels here thanks to topnotch bike lanes throughout the city. Pedal to the Oud Zuid neighborhood, and if it’s a Wednesday, catch a free lunchtime concert at the circa 1886 Concertgebouw, one of the most stunning performance halls in Europe (music begins at 12:30 pm, but arrive early to secure a seat). Continue on to Vondelpark, the city’s 120-acre green space with fountains, gardens and plenty of pretty picnic spots if you’ve packed your lunch. If not, head to Groot Melkhuis, a pretty, waterside café where we’d kick off the meal with bitterballen, the traditional Dutch meatball-like snack. Spend the afternoon in the nearby Museum Quarter. Start at the recently renovated Rijksmuseum—its most famous works are paintings by Dutch masters Rembrandt and Vermeer, but save time to explore the museum’s lesser known Special Collections, a fascinating and eclectic mix of gems, weapons, costumes and ship models. Next, continue on to the nearby Van Gogh Museum to see the world’s largest collection of work by the famous artist. A tip for visiting any of the city’s museums: order tickets online beforehand to skip the queue and enter via the fast lane.

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Stroll the Canals

Be sure to pack your walking shoes—one of the best things to do in Amsterdam is simply wander along the canals. For a pretty two-hour walk, start on Staalstraat with the little white drawbridge crossing the Groenburgwal canal for a photo-worthy view of the boat-lined waterway, marked by the 17th century Zuiderkerk (South Church) in the distance. Cross the Amstel river via the Blauwbrug bridge and zigzag your way up and down the canals of Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht. Cross the Amstel again and end your walk with a beer at De Ysbreeker (the icebreaker), so named for its original patrons, men whose job it was to break the ice on the canal in winter so boats could pass by. There are plenty of charming little cafés along the way should hunger strike, and this walk is also incredibly romantic at night, when the canal tunnels are illuminated by fairy lights.

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Shop de 9 Straatjes

De 9 Straatjes is a shopping district in Amsterdam’s canal district, popular with locals too thanks to the charming boutiques, restaurants, coffee shops and galleries lining its nine cobblestone streets. Fuel up at Pancakes! where the Dutch versions of the namesake dish (larger and thinner than their American counterpart) come in sweet and savory options. Pop into Pompadour Tearoom on Huidenstraat for coffee and chocolates in the afternoon or toast your finds at The Dylan, which offers “High Wine” between 3 and 6 pm with four wines paired with four amuse-style bites for about €40 per person. While you’re in the area, be sure to stop by Eddy Varekamp’s gallery on Hartenstraat—the artist’s colorful prints make the perfect souvenir.

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Say “Kaas”

From wedges served alongside sausages at brown cafés (Amsterdam's answer to a pub) to expansive carts at Michelin-starred restaurants, visitors will quickly come to understand that the Dutch take their cheese (or kaas) very seriously. Cheese lovers should head to the Reypenaer Tasting Room, which hosts a one-hour cheese tasting class with six varieties paired with wines (the €15 price tag also includes a wedge of your favorite to take home). A day trip to Gouda is worth doing between April and August, when the town hosts its Thursday morning cheese market (there’s even a cheese museum here). Edam, just a half-hour from Amsterdam by bus or car, also hosts a cheese market on Wednesdays during the summer. A visit off season is fun too as the atmospheric village center has plenty of shops selling their famous red or yellow wax-covered cheese year round. For a cheese-focused meal back in Amsterdam, head to local favorite Café Bern, where the simple but delicious fondue-focused menu is served up in casual, convivial digs.

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Settle In at a Brown Café

An upside to it raining a lot in Amsterdam: wet weather makes for an excellent excuse to tuck in at a pub. The city’s historic brown cafés—so named for their homey wooden interiors and walls stained from hundreds of years of nicotine smoke—are just the spot to spend a grey afternoon. Opened in 1606, Café Karpershoek is Amsterdam’s oldest and still has sand on the floor—while it’s just for show now, back in the day, it was practical as it made cleaning up chewing tobacco spit easier. Café Papeneiland is located on one of the city’s most iconic canal intersections (where Prinsengracht meets Brouwersgracht) while local favorite Café de Wetering has a big fireplace to cozy up to. Be sure to try jenever—a traditional Dutch spirit similar to gin—at least once, wash it down with a vaasje of local beer, and pair with bar snacks like cheese and sausages.

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Meander Around Jordaan

Often compared to New York City’s West Village, residential Jordaan is charming on any day of the week. Saturday, however, is a particularly good time to visit as the neighborhood’s Noordermarkt farmer’s market pops up in the square. Go around lunchtime and nibble your way through the fruit and vegetables stands, meat and cheese vendors and bakeries selling fresh bread and sweet treats like stroopwafels—caramel sandwiched between thin wafer cookies. Next, make a visit to the Anne Frank House, the diarist’s hiding place during World War II that’s now a museum honoring her life. Spend the afternoon café hopping the tree-lined canals and narrow alleys—in warmer months, Spanjer en van Twist has one of the best terraces in the city for sipping drinks along the canal and watching the boats go by. For a meal, head to La Oliva Pintxos y Vinos for stellar tapas and wine served in a bustling, candlelit room. Beer fans will also want to check out ‘t Arendsnest, a bar dedicated solely to Dutch brews and, if karaoke is your thing, visit Café de twee Zwaantjes, a piano bar where everyone joins in sing-a-longs to top hits and traditional Dutch tunes.

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Witness Windmills in Action

See the country's oldest windmills still spinning at Zaanse Schans. The shops and demonstrations here are very touristy, so we suggest giving them a skip and heading straight for the dirt path that runs behind the series of mills. The best time to arrive is around 4 pm, about an hour before the museum closes, when locals bring their dogs to walk along the path, the crowds have dispersed and the light has started to fade, casting a warm glow across the water. To get there, take a train 17 minutes from Amsterdam’s Central Station with a bike, then cycle up to the museum. Afterwards, pedal through the little village and go for a Grolsh before hopping back on the train to the city.

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Explore the Spui, the Begijnhof, and the Royal Palace

If you love a local market, visit the Spui, a square in the city’s center. On Fridays, Boekenmarkt moves in and dozens of vendors selling rare and out-of-print books in all languages line the streets, while Sunday sees Art Plein Spui, an open-air gallery of local artists showcasing their work. Near the American Book Center you’ll also find a little wooden door that leads to the Begijnhof, one of the oldest inner courts in Amsterdam, with little gardens, houses and a chapel. For lunch, head to circa 1670 Café Hoppe, still a local favorite for beers and bar snacks. Next, make your way up Kalverstraat for about 10 minutes to Dam Square and the Royal Palace. Signage is limited, so history buffs should opt for the free audio tour to get the full story behind the 17th century building’s grand halls and opulent décor. Just be sure to check the palace’s site before you go, as it’s frequently closed for state functions.