City Guide to Amsterdam, Netherlands: Part 1 | Must See Attractions & City Cards
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The Quick and Dirty Facts About Amsterdam
Amsterdam is a unique place that should be on everyone’s list of must see cities. Considered one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the world, Amsterdam has more bicycles than it does people. Seriously, there are 2.5 bicycles for every one person (Iamsterdam)! The main method of transportation is by bike, so much so that 63% of people commute on a bicycle (Teleport.org). So beware, if you rent a car for your visit, most of the parking in Amsterdam is paid and permit parking, even in residential areas (Iamsterdam). Public transportation is extensive and consists of train, tram, metro, bus and ferry options (Iamsterdam). Reading road signs is a bit tricky if you don’t know Dutch. However, the Dutch are known for being one of the most proficient English speaking people (Education First). So, just ask someone for help if directions, translation, or assistance is needed.
We found that most modes of public transportation had digital LCD screens (instead of the traditional static signs) that update with the current and next stops, making is easy to know when you’ve reached your intended stop. Because bicycling is the main mode of transportation in Amsterdam, they do get priority on the road. If your walking, unless in a cross walk, bicycles have the right of way and they almost always have their own dedicated path. If your like us, this takes a bit to get used to because their pathways resemble pedestrian pathways (especially at night) that are common in many other countries, including the United States.
The canals in Amsterdam can’t go without a mention. The belt of concentric half-circle canals is a UNESCO World Heritage site (Amsterdam.info). Early city planning in the 17th century laid out four main canals, but you really don’t have to go more than a few blocks to see a canal. As we explored Amsterdam, we literally translated our directions in relation to the canals, noting how many canals before we made a directional change. What makes these canals even more stunning are the homes that line the edges. The architecture is picturesque with beautiful detailed gables. You’ll immediately notice how narrow, yet vertical each home is. This is because back in the sixteenth century taxation was based on the width of the home, not the height. So, it was cheaper to build a tall and skinny home (Eating Amsterdam Food Tours) instead of a short and wide home. During our time in Amsterdam we were fortunate enough to tour homes that had seven or more stair levels!
Lastly, it may be a reason some visit, but it may also be something to be aware of. Prostitution is legal in Amsterdam and the city is known for its red-light districts (amsterdamlouge.com). We found ourselves walking through red-light districts and past sex shops without knowing they were coming up. We never felt unsafe, as these areas are often patrolled by police and are kept clean. Just be aware, if you or someone you’re traveling with is sensitive to this subject matter, whether within the red-light district or walking by shops, sex and sexual paraphernalia are common place here.
Tourist VS Local
When visiting a new city, we want to do everything. This means that we want to both live like a local, but we would be missing out if we didn’t experience the touristy stuff as well. We attempt to conquer both extremes of the quest in each place we visit, but this does require a bit more time to accomplish.
We spent about two-and-a-half weeks total in Amsterdam. We set aside the first week or so for exploring the city as a local. We walked, and walked, and walked. No joke, we literally put in six to twelve miles a day. We explored all the shops, big and small, convenient and department stores to grocery stores. We walked the canals and the parks, and just enjoyed the city as if we were residents. We took the last week or so to experience the city as a tourist. Having lived like a local, we had a solid foundation as to the layout and workings of the city, making our tourist explorations a bit more seamless and easy to do.
Our Money Saving Hack to Living It Up as a Tourist
We have no shame in being a full on, camera toting tourists. We want to see everything, the big, the small, the famous and the hole in the wall attractions. Let’s be real, you don’t go to Agra and not see the Taj Mahal, or go to Rome and not visit the Colosseum. But let’s face it, these attractions cost real money and can quickly add up and put a dent in your budget. Frankly, aside from lodging and food, excursions and attractions are the most expensive part of traveling.
Do It All for A Fraction of the Retail Cost
Without fail, when visiting a large city, we have one resource that saves us hundreds of dollars. Most major cities have a card, pass, or ticket that, at a small price, will get you into a long list of attractions, both big and small throughout the city. These passes or cards are either run by a company like Leisure Pass Group, Smart Destinations or are independent local organizations. There may be one option for the city, or a couple to choose from or combine.
Amsterdam didn’t disappoint us! We had a couple of options:
Each option has its pros and cons. A great comparison, including visual charts of what is included and not included in each option can be found at amsterdamtourist.info. We considered doing a combination of two of the discount cards mentioned above, but ultimately decided to only do the Iamsterdam card because of the breadth of what it covers. This was the best option for us, however, take a look at what would work best for you when visiting Amsterdam.
Iamsterdam Card Savings
The Iamsterdam card comes with entrance to many of the city’s top museums and attractions. It also comes with free access to all the city’s public transportation (excluding trains). This makes it incredibly easy to get from attraction to attraction. We used Google maps’ public transportation option for directions to make it super simple! Another option is to use the official local public transportation journey planner, 9292, or their iPhone or Android smartphone apps. The Iamsterdam cards can be purchased online or in person in city center. You have the option of purchasing a card that will be valid for 24, 48, 72 or 96 hours. Because there’s so much to do and see in Amsterdam, we splurged and purchased the 96 hour cards. We’re glad we did, because we used almost every hour to its fullest! The cards ended up costing $178.00 USD total.
Tip: Use less data! First, get to a place where you can connect to a secure Wi-Fi connection, or use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to stay safe. Log into your Google profile on your mobile device and download the area map of Amsterdam for offline use. Now, when you’re out and about, you’ll use less data because you already have the map downloaded to your device. Use even less data by loading the walking or public transit directions, but not actually activating them. You won’t get turn by turn directions, but you can use the GPS location and the blue direction lines/dots to get where you need to go. This helps big time if you’re paying for international data.
We Did Over 30 Attractions!
Note: The retail cost is based on the walk-up, at the door purchase of two adult tickets. Dollar amounts have been converted from Euros to US Dollars based on currency exchange at the time of travel (December 2016).
We Saved Over 75% While Seeing Amsterdam Museums and Attractions
We experienced 32 attractions, got a few bucks worth of postcards and used a ton of public transportation with our Iamsterdam cards. Retail value of all attractions, including the public transportation was over $830 USD. The cards themselves only cost $178 USD. This puts our savings in at over $680! So seriously, a savings of over 75%!
Now this is great savings! Keep in mind however, we went to over a dozen attractions a day, on three of the four days. We put in six or more miles of walking each day. This isn’t for the out of shape or the lazy. If you want to sit in a café and people watch, more power to you, but this isn’t the card for you. However, if you’re ready to explore every inch of Amsterdam, then we highly recommend the Iamsterdam Card!