The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for cultural city tours: Paul Bennett, Context Travel.
An award-winning writer for National Geographic and the author of several books about architecture and landscape, Paul Bennett launched Context Travel in 2003. Context Travel runs in-depth cultural walking tours in cities throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia for groups of up to six travelers. Each tour is designed and led by a scholar or specialist—in disciplines including archaeology, art history, cuisine, urban planning, history, environmental science, and classics. These professors, researchers, and experts in their field provide exceptional insight and open doors that would otherwise be closed to most travelers (including the doors to the Vatican, where you can join an art historian for an after-hours visit). Paul and his team, who prefer to call Context Travel an “untour company,” recently introduced a series of family walks, some of which involve treasure hunts. Paul was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013. Natalie Holmes runs the Context Travel program in Amsterdam and oversees its programs throughout Central Europe, Athens, and Istanbul.
Where to Eat
Restaurant the locals love
The Netherlands has a rich colonial history, and Indonesian food in Amsterdam is top-notch. Locals love Tempo Doeloe: Reserve ahead and order the rijsttafel (“rice table”)—numerous small dishes of meat, fish, and vegetables served with different types of rice.
Herring broodje, a local street vendor’s snack. More adventurous than the stroopwafel (a caramel-waffle sandwich that is also delicious and highly recommended), a herring broodje consists of cooked herring served with pickles in a bun.
Prime picnic spot
Gather a feast of fresh bread, mild Dutch cheese, and cured meats and head to Vondelpark. Home to an open-air theater, a playground, and a number of cafés and restaurants, this is Amsterdam’s most popular park, and for good reason. At 120 acres, there’s plenty of space for everyone amid the lakes, fountains, and towering trees. Families love the area adjacent to the Ooievaarsnest, named after the storks that nest there. Nearby is a fallen tree to climb, a paddling pool, and a rose garden.
What to See and Do
Outside the canal belt, an alternative Amsterdam awaits. Take a free ferry from behind Central Station to Amsterdam North. Here, the architecture is much more modern, and there is a completely different—much more local—vibe. There are places to swim or sail, catch a film, or have food and drinks on the waterside with spectacular views across the city.
While not necessarily overrated, Anne Frank House does attract a huge number of visitors, and you could easily end up queuing for hours to see what is a very small space. Timed tickets that allow you to go in through a separate entrance are available to book online but can sell out several months in advance, especially during summer.
The Flower Market: The stalls offer a great variety and selection, but the market is small, overcrowded, and full of tourist shops.
The Amsterdam Central Library can’t really be described as hidden, because it’s huge. Yet most visitors don’t know about it or don’t bother to visit. Architecturally interesting both inside and out, the library is a wonderful sanctuary from the bustling streets and affords one of the best views of the city from the floor-to-ceiling windows and rooftop terrace—and all for free!
The Stedelijk Museum is dedicated to modern and contemporary art and design. Despite its international reputation, it is often dwarfed by giants like the Rijksmuseum, and is a great, uncrowded alternative.
The Schuttersgalerij (Civic Guards Gallery) is a free part of the Amsterdam Museum. It’s a covered walkway full of ancient and contemporary artwork and sculptures that we visit during our Investors and Explorers walk, as it nicely connects the themes of how history speaks to present-day Amsterdam.
How to spend a Sunday
At the Westergasfabriek, a former industrial gasworks turned sprawling cultural center, a market for fashion, art, and design takes place on the first Sunday of each month. Get there when it opens at noon to find the best bargains on locally produced clothes, paintings, jewelry, ceramics, and more, then spend the afternoon exploring this creative hub of vibrant restaurants, bars, and galleries.
If you get up and out before 9 a.m., even the most famous sites like Dam Square (in front of the Royal Palace) are eerily empty. Snap some shots and then duck into a café for breakfast and watch the crowds assemble in a matter of minutes.
April and May tend to be bright and pleasant. Autumn is also beautiful, with the trees turning shades of auburn and the lowering sun reflecting romantically off the canals. Summer can be overcrowded; that said, July is the Rijksmuseum’s quietest month of the year.
Some museums and shops are closed on Mondays, and it is best to avoid Dutch holidays. Koningsdag (the King’s birthday, on April 27, or April 26 if the 27th falls on a Sunday) is particularly difficult, as the streets are full of revelers and shops and most museums are closed. Winter (November to March) is typically wet and gray, so it doesn’t show the charm of the city in its most flattering light.
Confusing cycle paths with the sidewalk. Look down: The cycle paths will be clearly marked, usually in a different color from the sidewalk. Plus, cycle paths are at street level and sidewalks slightly raised. Cyclists in Amsterdam rule the roads, and you should pay extra attention in order to avoid a collision with a passing bike.
Due to the efficient bicycle infrastructure and public transport, taxis are generally superfluous and particularly expensive. You’ll almost always be better off walking, cycling, or hopping on a tram than taking a taxi, even for airport transfers; the 15-minute train trip is as quick as a cab ride—and at four euros each way, a fraction of the price.
The Dutch are not big tippers, and a service charge is normally included, but good service should be rewarded: A small sum for a drink or 10 to 15 percent of the price of a meal. Rather than leaving the tip at your table as you depart, hand the money to your server. Just tell him or her how much you would like to pay in total when they collect the bill.