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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.