Liberal, unpretentious and utterly charming, Amsterdam is a city where anything goes. The Netherlands was one of the first countries in the world to legalise same-sex marriage, and decriminalised marijuana for use in its coffee shops years ago. But that’s not the only reason a feel-good atmosphere permeates Amsterdam. A cycling culture where bikes rule the roads, world-leading cheese, chocolate and beer and the canals that flow through the city, lined with 17th century gingerbread-esque homes (many of which lean slightly to one side), enhance the laid-back vibes. Here’s what to know before you go.
From Australia to Amsterdam, it’s about 21 hours in the air. Fly Qantas from Australia to Dubai, then it’s seven hours from Dubai to Amsterdam with airline partner Emirates.
Australian passport holders do not need to apply for a visa to enter the Netherlands. Upon arrival in Amsterdam, Australians are granted a 90-day tourist visa.
Landing at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol
The fastest way to get from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol to the city centre is a taxi, which takes 15-20 minutes and should cost around €40. Otherwise, the train from the airport to Amsterdam Centraal Station takes 20-30 minutes and costs €5.40.
The language barrier
The national language is Dutch, but English is widely spoken in the Netherlands, especially at sites and businesses frequented by tourists. If you don’t speak Dutch, throwing in a dank je (thank you) or goedenacht (good night) is a polite thing to do.
Customs and etiquette
Amsterdam is one of the world’s most easy-going cities but that doesn’t mean visitors should forget to be polite and respectful. Obnoxious behaviour, such as shouting or public drunkenness, is frowned upon. The Dutch are modest, so it’s considered bad form to boast, especially about wealth. The Dutch rarely express anger in public. It’s also considered rude to be late and to not shake hands when greeting someone.
It’s also worth noting the Dutch can seem frank to outsiders – they merely intend it to be sincere, honest and straight-forward – so before you react to a seemingly offensive or blunt comment, consider if it was intentional or just Dutch directness.
The Euro is the currency. At the time of writing, one Australian dollar bought 0.62 Euro cents. Check a reliable currency conversion service for up-to-date exchange rates.
Alert your bank before you leave Australia, just in case your purchases are thought to be fraudulent and your account is frozen – the fastest way to ruin an overseas holiday.
Make sure your bank won’t hit you with extra fees when you use your credit card in the Netherlands. Your Australian bank and Amsterdam ATMs will both charge you for withdrawing money from your debit card, too, so it might be worth organising a travel card (most banks have one) with low or no fees to use while you’re away.
Tipping is not expected like in the US, for example, but leave 5-10% extra or round up the bill at a restaurant if you had an exceptionally good experience. For tour guides, only tip a few euros if you really want to. It is not expected to tip taxi drivers in Amsterdam, but it’s not uncommon to round up the bill or offer €1-2 extra.
Smart Traveller advises that the health risks in the Netherlands are similar to those in Australia, and that the hospital facilities are high quality. As always, before you travel, make sure your standard vaccinations are up to date and purchase travel insurance.
In Amsterdam, the bicycle rules. There are rental places, bike lanes and stations to park them everywhere. Cycling in Amsterdam is very safe, since it’s so flat and car drivers are used to being aware of cyclists. Just make sure to keep to the right, stop at red lights, signal before you turn left or right and don’t cycle on footpaths. Ever.
Amsterdam’s public transport network is reliable, convenient and frequent. Called the GVB, it incorporates the train, tram, metro, bus and ferry. However, most visitors will rely on the tram, the quickest and easiest way to get around the city centre. To get on a tram, bus or the metro, buy a GVB day or weekly pass, starting at €7.50, or an OV card, which will be valid for an hour or a day, depending on which option you choose. Since March 2018, cash is no longer accepted on buses and trams.
The Netherlands has, for its residents at least, an agonisingly long, grey winter. Amsterdam is wet and cold from October through April. December through March, it can snow quite often. The end of April, when spring begins, through summer to September, when the weather begins to cool again, is the most pleasant time to visit.
When to go
Mid to late April might be the best time to visit Amsterdam – as spring arrives the Netherlands’ famous tulips bloom. Amsterdam really comes alive in summer (May to August) as the Dutch make the most of their comparatively brief summer before another long winter. The city buzzes with life and activity; beer gardens and outdoor seating at cafes and restaurants becomes packed with happy revellers and the Vondelpark, Amstedam’s biggest green space, is filled with people having picnics. However, lines for attractions are longer in summer. October/November is also a special time to visit, as the leaves on the trees turn brown and orange and the city prepares to celebrate the holidays – Amsterdam is magical in the lead-up to Christmas.
As with many major city, robbery, pickpocketing and bag snatching are common. Always be aware of your belongings and surroundings, especially at ATMs and near tourist attractions. Use common sense – avoid walking through quiet, poorly lit areas at night and where possible use ATMs located inside banks, not on the street.
Amsterdam is known for its liberal policy on “soft” drugs. It’s important to know the difference between cafés and coffeeshops: the former sells coffee and cakes, the latter sells marijuana. While tourists are currently permitted to buy and consume the drug in a coffeeshop in Amsterdam (other parts of the Netherlands have different rules), it is very much illegal to purchase or use it elsewhere. Visit the Smart Traveller website for more information.
Dutch law requires all persons over 14 years of age to carry ID at all times.
The tap water in the Netherlands, and in Amsterdam in particular, is some of the cleanest in Europe – so yes, it’s safe to drink.
The dress code in Amsterdam is generally relaxed. Comfortable closed-toe shoes are recommended for exploring during the day, especially if you’re cycling. Even in warmer months the weather can become suddenly cool and rainy, so always have an extra layer with you and keep an umbrella or rain jacket in your bag.
Smart Traveller recommends all visitors to Amsterdam take out comprehensive travel insurance to cover overseas medical costs, including evacuation.
Where to stay
The most central neighbourhoods – Amsterdam Noord, Jordaan and De Wallen – will have you steps from many of Amsterdam’s best attractions, but you’ll cough up a lot of money for a room. Just a short tram ride or cycle from the city centre there are several hip neighbourhoods with great boutique hotels, restaurants, cafes, bars and stores, including De Pijp, Amsterdam Oost, Oud-Zuid and Oostelijke Eilanden.
Phone calls and mobile data
Whether your Australian phone will work in the Netherlands or not will depend on your provider and plan – check with your phone company before you leave. Before you land, disable data roaming and don’t answer incoming calls on your mobile phone if you want to keep your monthly bill in check. You might be able to purchase a SIM card to use in your Australian phone once you land, but that will depend on whether your phone is locked to your Australian carrier – again, check with your phone company before you go. The European emergency number is 112.
To call Australia, dial +61 followed by the phone number – including the area code minus the zero. So, to call a Sydney landline telephone, you would dial +61 2 then the phone number. To call a mobile phone, use the same country code and dial the mobile number minus the first zero.
In the Netherlands the voltage is 230V and the frequency is 50Hz, the same as Australia, so most devices should work without any problems as long as you have a European adaptor to plug into the electrical wall socket.
Handy apps and websites
Uber if public transport fails.
XE for currency conversion.
Amsterdam Airport Schipol for information on flights, weather, traffic, parking, terminal locations and airport shuttles.
9292 for discovering how to get anywhere in Amsterdam on public transport.
FlickBike to locate, reserve and pay for a rented bicycle.
I Amsterdam Maps & Routes offers countless interactive maps and routes through the city’s different neighbourhoods, which can be downloaded and used offline.