Is Amsterdam Worth Visiting? 10 Reasons For And Against

Published August 2, 2022

Amsterdam is a city that I have many conflicting feelings about (as you might have guessed from the title of this post). My extended family and I recently spent five days in Amsterdam on the tail end of a Viking River Cruise along the Rhine. It was great opportunity to get to know this bustling city famous for its canals, Red Light District, and progressive social policies.

Amsterdam's Red Light District

Six Reasons For Visiting Amsterdam

1. The city center is truly beautiful.

Let’s set my mixed feelings on Amsterdam aside for a second and agree that the heart of Amsterdam, or Centrum, is uniquely pretty. The stunning architecture here is a product of Amsterdam’s former status as the economic center of Europe during the colonial period. We learned on one of our tours that the Dutch taxation system historically incentivized townhomes and warehouses to become narrower and narrower, which is why buildings here are so characteristically thin.

In addition, the canals keep the main roads feeling wide, open, and sunny despite the densely packed homes. The water also reflects the pretty colors of various façades, which make it easy to take great pictures.

Amsterdam also has a few iconic churches worth checking out, including De Oude KerkWesterkerk, and Basilica van de Heilige Nicolaas. The Amsterdam Centraal Station is also architecturally stunning.

De Oude Kerk
Westerkerk
Basilica van de Heilige Nicolaas
Amsterdam Centraal Station

2. Bike tours here are lots of fun!

Did you know the Netherlands has more bikes than people? That lifestyle stands in stark contrast to the car-centric urban sprawl that many Americans are used to, and I frankly think it’s worth experiencing first-hand. We booked a group bicycle tour (“Bill’s Bike Tour”) with a company called Tours & Travels Amsterdam, and it ended up being one of the highlights of our time here.

Our guide did an excellent job of showing us parts of the city that are off the beaten path. This was great because we avoided both tourist crowds and other cyclists.

The tour was centered around Westerpark, a large green space on the city’s northern side. We also took our bikes on a free ferry up to Amsterdam-Noord. This is an industrial and artsy part of town across the IJ (the city’s widest river running west to east). While there, we got to see a ton of graffiti and learned about how the area is quickly gentrifying and pushing artists further away from the city center.

Our tour ended with a visit to the Tony Chocoloney Home (flagship) Store. For those unfamiliar, this chocolate company’s goal is to shine a light on corporate giants in the industry for their use of slave and child labor. They do this by vocally advertising their own (more) ethical supply chains. It’s a fascinating and innovative way to pressure multinational food conglomerates to do better.

As someone who hasn’t ridden a bike in years, I had no issues in terms of stamina or difficulty on this tour. It should also be noted that the tour did not provide helmets. In fact, no bikers in Amsterdam wear helmets! According to our guide, there is an anti-helmet sentiment in the city because of the message it sends (that bikes are dangerous). This was a really interesting insight into the local mindset and culture around bicycles.

I think the main reason this tour was so good was that our guide didn’t attempt to bring us to the very center of the city (the vicinity of Amsterdam Centraal Station). That would’ve been so crazy and chaotic! The neighborhoods we biked through near Westerpark were still lovely, but had much calmer and quieter streets.

3. The Anne Frank House can't be missed.

Whether you’ve read Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” recently, many years ago, or not at all, I highly recommend you visit the Anne Frank House while in Amsterdam. Tickets must be booked online for a timed entrance, but it is worth planning for.

The museum next to the Anne Frank House

The visit begins with a walk at your own pace through a museum that was built next to the home. Exhibits introduce you to the lives of the Frank family and the historical context for their going into hiding. As you learn more, you eventually enter the hidden annex where Anne Frank stayed for over two years. It’s a visceral and emotional experience that can’t be put into words.

There is no photography allowed inside the museum or the house. I think this really adds to the experience. We all put our phones away, and everyone was fully present during our visit. The most shocking thing for me was the speed at which discrimination and oppression turned into full-scale genocide in Nazi-occupied Europe. It’s a warning to the world, and one that humanity hasn’t always done a great job of heeding after World War II.

The Anne Frank House may make visitors uncomfortable, but that’s kind of the point. Book your tickets early and be sure not to miss the opportunity to learn about this integral part of Dutch history.

4. You can cruise the canals on a boat tour.

Amsterdam’s canals are pretty enough that they’re worth seeing both on foot and by boat. Many canal cruises are only an hour, which means you don’t have to dedicate an entire day to this fun outing. The one we went on offered beer, wine, and soft drinks plus some narration about what we were seeing. However, our guide didn’t have a microphone, so she was at times hard to hear over the engine of the boat or other background noise.

One highlight of a canal cruise is passing under these low bridges.

5. Public transportation is excellent.

Getting around Amsterdam is pretty straightforward. First off, the city is incredibly dense, which means walking from one destination to the next is usually possible. If you need to go a little further, there are metros, trams, buses, and “Sprinter” trains. In general, Google Maps seems pretty integrated with all of the various systems.

6. Day trips from Amsterdam make it easy to see the rural side of the Netherlands.

The Netherlands is a small country, so Amsterdam is pretty close to lots of small towns in all directions. We booked a day trip to the historic village of Zaanse Schans, had lunch in Volendam, and then took the ferry to Marken. Even though it rained all day, I’m so glad I got to see these rural areas north of the Dutch capital.

Zaanse Schans

Zaanse Schans is a town where visitors can see authentic old Dutch architecture, including both the interior and exterior of windmills. We also witnessed an impressive wooden clog manufacturing demonstration. Some might call Zaanse Schans a tourist trap (and maybe it is), but I still liked it.

After that, we stopped at the Henri Willig cheese farm. Employees gave a short presentation about how they raise their cows and how they age the cheese. The visit culminated in a visit to their large gift shop, where they sell dozens of different flavors of cheese and offer lots and lots of free samples.

For lunch, our group was driven further north to the seaside town of Volendam. This area is famous for its locally sourced eel, so I had to try it at Smit-Bokkum restaurant. It was very tasty but not overly fishy!

To end the day, we took a slow ferry from Volendam to Marken. This tiny settlement of only about 2,000 residents is connected to the mainland via a manmade dyke, so our driver met us there and brought us back into Amsterdam.

If Zaanse Schans and Volendam don’t interest you, there are many other places you could spend a day instead. My point here is, the Dutch countryside is a totally different world than the city streets of Amsterdam, and it’s worth seeing if you can.

Four Reasons Against Visiting Amsterdam

1. The city center is crowded and hectic.

I’m going to be blunt: Amsterdam is crowded. All of those beautiful canals and narrow homes (and the drinking and partying scene) draw massive crowds from all over the world. Given that this is the first year that things are genuinely almost “back to normal” after the pandemic, I can only imagine that the crowding here is going to get worse as the decade goes on.

In addition, the number of cyclists can be a little overwhelming, at least for your first day or two. You really have to be careful and alert at all times. Bikes functionally have the right of way over pedestrians, so I don’t recommend walk around with your nose buried in your phone. You also have to watch out for tram lanes in addition to bike and car lanes.

A sea of bikes parked outside Sloterdijk Station in Amsterdam

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think it’s amazing that Amsterdam is a city that doesn’t require residents and visitors to have a car! In fact, even though foot traffic and bicycle traffic can be overwhelming, there are relatively few motor vehicles on the road. It’s one thing you won’t have to worry about (as much). But bikes are quiet and can sneak up on you, so the flow of traffic takes some getting used to.

2. Some parts of town aren't very picturesque.

Amsterdam is not a city of skyscrapers, but it is incredibly dense. It’s so dense, in fact, that there is literally no space between buildings. In some districts, this adds to the beauty of the homes and streets. However, in other areas, simplistic architectural designs appear to be repeated over and over again, spanning entire city blocks.

This is obviously a matter of opinion, and most cities have sections that aren’t so quaint. With that said, some outskirts of the city were surprisingly drab and dull.

3. The food scene here wasn't my favorite.

The first thing I noticed about Amsterdam’s restaurant scene is how international it is. There are lots of options and offerings from all over the world. Despite this, the food in Amsterdam just wasn’t my favorite. Every meal I had was good, but none of them really stood out as fantastic.

Dan Dan Noodles from Foodhallen, an international food court in Amsterdam.
Vietnamese food I tried in Amsterdam. It looks good, but wasn't as flavorful as I'd hoped it would be.

In terms of local food, the most prominent specialty is Dutch pancakes. There are so many pancake houses around town, so I suggest you try at least one. We had brunch one day at De Carrousel Pannenkoeken, a fun restaurant with a circus-themed interior. We tried poffertjes, which are a traditional Dutch plate of mini pancake bites. They’re delicious but very sweet, so an English breakfast split among four of us was perfect for offsetting some of the powdered sugar on the poffertjes.

4. Amsterdam is expensive.

There’s no getting around this one. Amsterdam is expensive. Everything from food and drink to metro tickets is more expensive here than in many other parts of Europe. If you’re looking to stretch your dollar or euro as far as it’ll go, the Netherlands is probably not the best place to do that.

Final Verdict: Is Amsterdam Worth Visiting?

You’ve seen the good, you’ve seen the bad. So is Amsterdam worth visiting at least once? I’d say yes. It still offers a unique travel experience, and all of the organized tours we went on surpassed my expectations. However, I think you’ll enjoy your trip a bit more if you know what to expect and what to watch out for.

Would I go back?

I’m not opposed to returning to Amsterdam someday, but I’m going to prioritize other capitals of Europe first. With that said, I am still intrigued by the country of the Netherlands and would be much more interested in checking out some of the other towns, cities, villages, and coastal areas there than returning to Amsterdam.

Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the outskirts of Rotterdam, Netherlands. We stopped here on the final full day of our Rhine River Cruise.

Have you been to Amsterdam or any other part of the Netherlands? Did you love it, hate it, or fall somewhere in between? Are you headed to this city of canals soon? Leave a comment and let me know! Thanks for reading and see you next time!

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This post was published on Aug 2, 2022

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