There’s no way around it. Amsterdam did not live up to our expectations.
I have even found myself wondering if Amsterdam is overrated.
Even just typing that sentence hurt a little, as we had such high hopes for the famous Dutch city. It’s a tremendously popular destination, adorning a lot of bucket lists and blog posts about the best cities in Europe. Tourists flock to Amsterdam in droves; estimates range as high as a whopping twenty million visitors per year. And with a reputation for great art, good food, and beautiful scenery (as well as more hedonistic pleasures), it’s easy to see why. It seems like there’s something for everyone in Amsterdam.
We couldn’t wait to experience it for ourselves.
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Our opportunity to visit Amsterdam came when we found a great travel deal while searching for a “babymoon” destination. The package included three nights in Paris followed by three in Amsterdam, and it was the latter’s inclusion that sold us. Ironically, we ended up falling completely in love with Paris and having rather conflicting emotions about Amsterdam.
Despite our excited anticipation on the train ride north, the letdown began almost as soon as we arrived in Amsterdam. After taking a tram to our hotel, we immediately hit the streets to start exploring. It was then that we realized that the city was an absolute mess. We had just missed a huge festival, but the remnants of it were littered across the city and its famous canals. Confetti, plastic bottles, trash, vomit – all of it clogged the streets and bobbed in the water.
Nothing takes the wind out of your sails like discovering that the city you’d heard was the epitome of beauty has been treated like someone’s garbage dump.
While I understand that major events come with huge crowds and a commensurate amount of clean-up after they leave, the trashing of the city exemplified more than just the remnants of a single festival. It was a jarring reminder that Amsterdam is a city with a complicated relationship with tourists thanks to severe overtourism.
Look, I know how that sounds: Travel blogger visits popular tourist destination, then condemns others for doing the same! That’s not my intention. I don’t fault anyone for wanting to experience places that are tremendously popular, since there’s often a good reason for their popularity. What left a bad taste in my mouth in Amsterdam was the fact that the manner in which many tourists are visiting is robbing the place of its soul and tarnishing what makes it special.
The trashing of the city, for me, was a physical manifestation of all the ways that tourists are coming to Amsterdam, using it for their own pleasures, and leaving a mess behind. From the garbage-clogged canals by day to the chaotic and unsettling Red Light District at night, I could understand why locals are frustrated by the massive, rowdy, inebriated crowds. Any city deserves better, but especially one as beautiful and historic as Amsterdam.
At first, it felt hard to focus on the charms of the city. It was so much dirtier, so much more crowded, so much less focused on Dutch culture than I expected. Intoxicated people seemed to be everywhere, stumbling into the path of oncoming bikers, yelling at the tops of their lungs, and knocking into other pedestrians. I had known, of course, that Amsterdam had a party side and was immensely popular, but I guess I wasn’t prepared for these facets of the city to smack me in the face like they did. I even lamented leaving Paris, wondering, “Is Amsterdam overrated? Should we even have bothered to come?”
But then, the initial shock started to wear off. M and I walked farther along the canals, away from the city center, and were able to find some of the charm we had envisioned when we first planned our trip. We strolled brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets, admiring the lovely row houses. There is something striking about all those tall, narrow homes perched in a multicolored line along the glittering canals. I even found myself imagining what it might be like to live in one of those houses, waking up and sipping a cozy cup of tea while looking out across the water.
Bridges arched gracefully over the water, many of them lined with vibrantly-colored flowers. The warm breeze caressed our faces and the many trees provided much-needed shade on an otherwise sweltering day. Boats chugged merrily along through the canals. Slowly, my disappointments began to ebb, and I felt like I was starting to understand why so many people love this city.
Later that night, we visited the Anne Frank House, which was incredibly moving. Had that been the only thing we did in Amsterdam, it would have been worth the trip. We also enjoyed a fantastic dinner at a romantic little spot called De Belhamel, which is situated at the intersection of two of the prettier canals. By the time we returned to our hotel that night, I was feeling much better about Amsterdam.
Our next two days passed in a pleasant blur of cycling, museums, parks, boating, eating, and strolling along the canals. At the same time, cleaning crews worked hard to remove the remnants of the recent festival and return the streets to their normal beauty. By the time we left, a tiny piece of Amsterdam had wedged its way into my heart.
I don’t know that I will ever love Amsterdam as much as I loved other European cities like Budapest and Paris. The party atmosphere, ubiquitousness of the scummier side of marijuana culture, and general attitude of many tourists didn’t go away with the sweeping of the streets. M and I agreed on our way home that it was a place we were glad to have experienced but aren’t in a rush to revisit.
Reflecting on the trip, though, I don’t think I would say that Amsterdam is overrated after all. There were some really special aspects to the city that I absolutely think are worth experiencing, such as:
1.) The city and its canals really are beautiful.
As I mentioned above, Amsterdam really is one of the most charming cities in Europe. The rows of historic homes all lined up along the water make it such a unique place, and one of the best things to do in Amsterdam is just taking a stroll along the canals. It’s one of those places where you don’t feel the need to rush from one activity to the next; much of the pleasure of visiting comes purely from wandering around.
2.) It’s surprisingly small and manageable.
Given its big reputation, we were surprised at how small the city of Amsterdam actually is. Its compact size, and particularly the centrality of most of the most interesting sights, made it quick and painless to learn our way around. This was a welcome change after the huge metropolis of Paris.
While you can certainly do as the Dutch do and cycle between destinations, Amsterdam’s small size makes it very walkable. Moving between many of the major attractions can be easily – and pleasantly – done on foot. And, since you can see a lot in a short amount of time, the city is perfect for quick trips. In fact, you can even have a great time in Amsterdam in only one day!
3.) The museums are outstanding.
One thing that is not overrated about Amsterdam is her museums. Strangely, despite appreciating good museums, M and I don’t tend to prioritize them when traveling, since we’re usually keen to be outdoors or taking in attractions unique to our destination. In Amsterdam, however, we visited two excellent museums and would happily have visited more if we had had the time. While I highly recommend the Anne Frank House and the Rijksmuseum, other worthy options include the Van Gogh Museum, Houseboat Museum, Dutch Resistance Museum, Rembrandt House Museum, and National Maritime Museum.
4.) Amsterdam has a great cafe culture and better food than I expected.
When you travel to Thailand, Italy, or France, experiencing great cuisine is probably near the top of your list of expectations. The Netherlands, on the other hand, isn’t exactly famous for its food. (I definitely couldn’t name a quintessentially Dutch dish before arriving in Amsterdam.)
What we found on our trip, however, were fabulous restaurants and tasty food coupled with a vibrant cafe culture. You can find cuisines from all over the world here, or stick to local favorites like Dutch pancakes, sandwiches, and fried snacks. In addition, “brown cafes” dot the city, waiting to welcome visitors for a pint or a snack. Many of these old, traditional pubs have been neighborhood mainstays for generations, and they offer a fun glimpse into Dutch culture and history.
5.) The locals we met were friendly, witty… and gorgeous.
Despite tensions between tourists and locals, M and I were treated with nothing but courtesy and good humor during our time in Amsterdam. Almost everyone we met seemed to have a ready smile or joke. Restaurant servers were much friendlier than in Paris, and it was the cheekiness of one tour provider’s website that won us over when booking our canal tour. It also didn’t hurt that, on the whole, the Dutch people we encountered all look like they had stepped right out of a magazine. Maybe it’s thanks to all the cycling they do, though I certainly didn’t feel attractive after our hot, sweaty ride to Zaanse Schans!
So there you have it: my complicated first impressions of Amsterdam. While we were definitely glad to have visited, I know that she will never get hold of my heart like other places around the globe. Have you been to Amsterdam? What were your impressions? Do you think Amsterdam is overrated? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
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This post was originally published on October 27, 2020, and was last updated on November 14, 2021.
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