Five Ways To See Amsterdam (or Any Other City) Like a Local

The largest five-star hotel in Holland has presided over Dam Square since 1866
The five-star Grand Krasnapolsky has presided over Dam Square since 1866.
Find more of my Amsterdam highlights at Afar.com
Find more  Amsterdam highlights @Afar.com

Millions visit Amsterdam each year, testifying to the popularity of the Dutch capital as a destination city. Many come armed with a bucket list, often topped by Anne Frank’s House and the Van Gogh Museum. While there’s no denying the merit of visiting these and other renowned landmarks, there’s more to Amsterdam—and many other destinations—than Lonely Planet and Fodor’s must-sees.

To experience Amsterdam (or any other city) like a local, set your guidebooks aside and venture to venues not typically visited by non-residents. Here’s how:

1. Sleep Like a Local

Sleep like a local through Couchsurfing.
Sleep like a local through Couchsurfing.

Tourist accommodations in Amsterdam range from five-star hotels, e.g. the chi-chi Amstel, Grand Krasnapolsky and Sofitel Grand to renowned hostels like the Flying Pig and Meeting Point. You can enjoy breakfast in a modern houseboat overlooking the Amstel River at B&B Houseboat Little Amstel or sleep over a pizzeria at Bed & Breakfast La Festa in the quiet Jordaan.

While all these establishments offer comfortable digs for a range of budgets, they’re all commercial establishments that cater to tourists, where you’ll share a lobby with folks just like yourself—clueless about the city beyond what you’ve possibly gleaned from a kindly concierge. For a more authentic experience, stay with a local through Couchsurfing or beWelcome, both global networks that connect travelers with local residents. There’s also AirB&B, offering rooms and apartments for rent—typically not as culturally interactive as the previous gratis options, but at least you’ll be sleeping in a private residence rather than a commercial hotel.

Couchsurfers in the kitchen.
Couchsurfers in the kitchen @ Bij Melissa.

2. Eat Like a Local

If you want to eat like an Amsterdammer, you’ll prepare some of your meals with a couchsurfing host, in a hostel kitchen or a rental apartment. Pick up local produce at neighborhood markets like the Albert Cuyp in de Pijp, Ten Kate in the Oud-West and Dappermarkt in the Oost, all open daily except Sunday. Shop for organic and artisanal goodies at the Pure Markt, held Sundays in rotating locations throughout Amsterdam. Pick up missing ingredients at our ubiquitous Albert Heijn supermarkets or find a Dirk or Aldi market for less pricey groceries.

Hollandse nieuwe haring, or “new” herring" is nowadays required to be frozen following the catch, so good fish is available year-round.
Lightly brined herring is a Dutch treat.

A fine selection of street food makes it easy to eat like a Dutchie when you’re on the run. Sample brine-cured herring served with pickles, onions and a little Dutch flag for stabbing the buttery morsels at stands throughout the city. Nibble on warm kibbeling at Vishandel Centrum. Dig into a cone of hot Vlaames Frites—Belgian fries smothered in mayo, ketchup, saté sauce or a gooey sauce mixture.

Window-shopping for fast food at FEBO.
Window-shopping for fast food at FEBO.

If you must, eat from the wall at FEBO, an inexplicably popular Dutch tradition that satisfies appetites 24/7 with automated fast food displayed in tiny windows. No telling how long those mayo-slathered frikandel and burgers have been sitting there under heat lamps, but if you’re starving in the wee hours, they may be your only snack option.

3. Dine With Locals

IMG_0266
Eat to Meet organizes dinners at local restaurants like Abyssinia.

Numerous websites allow you to reserve your spot at a local restaurant or home, where you’ll join other visiting foodies, expats and residents for a meal. Through Dine With the Dutch, tourists and expats can learn more about food and culture in Holland at dinners hosted by locals. Eat to Meet organizes gatherings at restaurants in Amsterdam and The Hague. Eat With matches foodies of all ages and nationalities with local hosts for meals, workshops and cooking classes.

4. Shop Like a Local

Leidsestraat
Shopping on busy Leidsestraat

Tourists flock to Amsterdam’s pedestrian shopping streets—Kalverstraat and Leidsestraat—to browse for shoes, clothes, accessories, cosmetics and just about anything else they might need or never knew they needed. While there’s enough bounty to satisfy any fashionista on these strips, braving the hordes of tourists on them will give even the most patient boyfriend a headache and might have female shoppers running for the hills—if there were any in Holland.

Haalemerstraat
Haarlemerstraat offers some of Amsterdam’s quirkiest shopping.

For a less stressful retail experience, get off the beaten path on the Negen Stratjes (Nine Streets) and Hazenstraat, Amsterdam’s “Tenth Street,” where dozens of one-of-a-kind boutiques and pop-up stores offer treasures minus the tourist crush. For art and antiques, head for Nieuwe Spiegelstraat near Vondelpark or look for quirky retailers on Haarlemmerstraat and Haarlemmerdijk near Central Station.

5. Play Like a Local

If you spend all your time at iconic attractions, you’ll be surrounded by tourists like yourself. Round out your experience by connecting with real Amsterdammers at Meetup.com activities. With hundreds of groups devoted to everything from wine tasting and pub crawling to hiking, photography, computer hacking and adventure travel, you’re bound to find people and places beyond well-trodden tourist paths. InterNations brings the expat community together in Amsterdam, with many activities open to visitors.

Looking for free WiFi or an English-language newspaper? Visit the library! Photo Credit: Amsterdam Marketing
Looking for free WiFi or an English-language newspaper? Visit the library! Photo Credit: Amsterdam Marketing

At Amsterdam’s public library, the Openbare Bibliotheek or OBA, rub elbows with locals, browse newspapers and magazines from around the world, and attend film showings, game events, readings, concerts and lectures. Check your e-mail, make a hostel reservation or print your plane ticket at one of 600 Internet-connected computers. Resources available for visitor use include 50 multi-media workstations, 110 reference terminals and 11 print stations.  Open long hours, seven days a week, the library’s best kept secret is perhaps its restaurant, offering casual dining with panoramic views of the watery Ij and city below.

27 comments

  1. From my experience of living in Netherlands, travel like locals is also important. And the way to travel like locals is by using bicycle for regular commuting.

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  2. Wow! Thank you so much for the tips. It really helps to know how to travel like a local from someone who has experience of the city.

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  3. In some countries, if you want to have a break from touristic places and discover where the locals really go, what they really like, what they are proud of…, you can get in touch with a greeter (http://www.globalgreeternetwork.info/). A greeter is someone who loves their city and wants to share that interest with people, who wants to show tourists what is so great about their city, to give them a free visit of their favourite places, with sometimes a few extra tips for the rest of the journey. I haven’t tried it yet, but I love the idea!
    Unfortunately, there aren’t any greeters yet in Amsterdam…
    Melissa, you seem to love Amsterdam, wouldn’t you be interested in becoming a greeter, and developping the concept there?

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  4. Amazing hints!
    This is the best way to get know the city! When you go only to touristics places you are aaaalways surrunded with a lot of foreigners!
    This post is very usefull, I didn´t know most of this sites!

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  5. You’ve got me! I just popped over here for a sec from your couchsurfing profile. That was half an hour ago. Amsterdam has been one of my favorite cities in the world since I lived there over 40 years ago. But I have not visited in more than 25 years. I’m changing that in September, finally! And your blog has been reintroducing me to all the sites I want to see, the foods I want to eat, the streets and canals I want to roam! Thanks so much.

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  6. This is a great article, Melissa! I have traveled a fair amount in areas of the world that attract many tourists but only recently have I begun to experience major cities with local hosts (in NYC and Barcelona – Paris, London, and Amsterdam are planned for this month) but I couldn’t agree more with the five tips you listed in this article.

    For example, I am currently staying with a host (found through AirBnB) in Barcelona and she took us to an authentic flamenco show. The neighborhood that she brought us to was one that is not often frequented by tourists and the show was twice as long for less than half the price of the flamenco shows on the main tourist strip. Experiences like this would be difficult to come by without help from a local.

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  7. I haven’t tried the meet up idea while travelling yet. Looking forward to trying it out on an un coming trip. Will be great to meet like minded locals. Great article!

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  8. Those are excellent tips especially for inexperienced travellers! I’ve never really tried avoiding touristy spots, but those are always so crowded! Staying with locals is also something I’ve never tried before but that’ll hopefully change my trip a lot!
    Pretty much all your articels provide travellers with loads of useful tips and i guess all of them can be used on other touristy cities as well.

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  9. Melissa, I love Amsterdam but didn’t get there that often when I lived in the Netherlands. I especially would love to try the eating wall at FEBO, although admittedly I’m not really a frikandel fan.

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  10. I do agree with your points of seeing the city like a local, but still if you live somewhere a bit longer, you should definitely try to learn the language! I try to do so with Dutch although not easy as most people speak English, but I think it still helps and makes you more integrated and better acquainted with how people are living. and yes, play football with local people 🙂

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  11. Meetups with locals also help to improve the language skills tremendously. It’s such an amazing combination: do something that you like while improving the language. Just know the limits: you should already be at a decent level to keep people interested.

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  12. 12 years ago, I was studying a Farsi weblog (The first Farsi weblog on the Net). One of interesting posts was a post about visiting the New York like a local! I liked the concept but like any other tourists, I usually use the reference guides like Lonely planet, TripAdvisor, travbuddy and wikitravel. This time I had this chance to read Melisa’s great guide before starting my trip. I couldn’t wait to my flight to experience local life of AMS. Thank you Melisa for sharing your experiences.

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  13. Melissa, that’s a great post, I really appreciate that. I wish I could have this kind of articles for all cities I wanna visit. I am pretty sure we always loose the best things when we only spend our time in the touristic places.
    Well, now I am looking forward to grab some groceries in the nearest market and use my hands to make a delicious dutch meal.
    And as a food lover and a curious person by local costumes, the shared dinners between locals and tourists cannot be a better way to experience a new culture. I am checking it out right now. Thank you for that.
    Hope to have all these experiences soon.

    Raisa

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  14. Absolutely wonderful! I traveled here for the first time a couple of years ago. This time, I will have to try some of these tips! I had no idea that ‘Eat to Meet’ or ‘Eat With’ even existed. This is something I am going to try as a solo traveler this time around.

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  15. These are wonderful tips. I’ve never heard about these possibilities to meet up and dine with strangers. What a great idea! 🙂

    And the library sounds amazing. Seems like there should at least be one rainy day during my stay to go there and read the world!

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  16. I agree! There’s no better way to see a city than outside of the tourist realm. I spend much of my time wandering the streets and popping into shops, exploring where my feet can carry me, rather than with an itinerary in mind. I usually go to grocery stores, but the library is a great idea that I’ll have to try! Although, I do always add in a few of the ‘must see’ sites when I travel because some of these places have real merit (I usually choose the museums). When you can get a real feel for the culture and create your own itinerary, unique experiences are created rather than having the same touristic experience as all of your friends back home. I also recommend couch surfing just as you said–there’s no better way to feel immersed in the city and culture in which you are traveling.

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  17. Thanks for these great tips! Instead of checking off all the usual tourist attractions I’m always a lot more interested to experience a city the way the locals do and to get in touch with them. And this blog post ist a great starting point to get just that! 🙂

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  18. I really prefer getting a local’s take on new places that I visit. The dine with locals is a great concept. Any chance I can buy some groceries and take a cooking class from you as a less formal version of that? Looking forward to meeting you! Thanks so much for being willing to make it work to host me this weekend 🙂

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