From its historic canal belt to world-class museums, Amsterdam offers a plethora of memorable experiences. On the flip side, many popular venues can be expensive tourist traps. Keep this in mind before adding these oft-visited sights to your itinerary:
1. The Anne Frank House. It’s the attraction that tops many bucket lists: the annex where the Holocaust’s most famous diarist hid with her family before the Nazis hauled them away. It’s also the one with the longest lines; arrive mid-day without a reservation and you’ll spend more time in line than the hour or so it takes to view a museum now shrouded by modern glass and steel. While the courageous teenager is undeniably inspiring, do you really want to pay €9 to view her ordeal amidst hordes of tourists?
Instead: See Anne, a new play that dramatizes the time Anne Frank spent with her family before going into hiding, the years in the Secret Annex, and the horrors that followed. For more Holocaust lore, visit the Dutch Resistance Museum, where you’ll find a thoughtful perspective of Holland during Hitler’s tyrannical reign without standing in line.
2. Canal Boat Tours. Sure, Amsterdam is stunning from the water. Gliding along scenic waterways, you look up at gabled mansions and historic monuments. Yet most canal tours cram guests under a glass dome and subject them to 60-minutes of trite commentary surrounded by foreigners blocking their views.
Instead: Opt for a cozier experience—a candlelit dinner on Jewel Cruises‘ 19th-century salon boat with up to 19 of your best friends. Better yet, be among the first to cruise Amsterdam’s canals in a Boom Chicago Hot Tug filled with 38°C/100°F water. The Dutch-designed contraptions hold up to seven, plus an on-board captain.
3. The Heineken Experience. Since 1864, Amsterdam has been renowned for the pilsner that once permeated De Pijp with the fragrance of fermenting hops. Closed in 1988, the brewery transformed into a museum that offered tours for fans. After a 2008 renovation, ticket prices skyrocketed, bottomless tastings became two-beer samplings, and a brand promotion transformed into a tourist trap.
Instead: Heineken may be Holland’s most renowned export, but it pales in pizazz compared to beers made at local craft breweries like Brouwerij de Prael in Amsterdam’s Red Light District and Brouwerij ’t IJ, marked by a giant windmill in East Amsterdam. Both offer tours and tastings.
4. Madame Tussauds. This branch of London’s wax homage to celebrity is similar to attractions around the world. Enjoy the panoramic view of Dam Square from the giant top floor window—virtually the only redeeming feature of a tacky wax collection.
Instead: Recall one of Amsterdam’s most famous celebrities in Rembrandt’s Studio, filled with 17th-century curiosities and some of the artist’s best etchings.
5. Faux Museums. Throughout Amsterdam, shops masquerading as museums sell overpriced cheese, tulips and even vodka. Once inside, it’s clear you’ve paid to visit a commercial store disguised as a museum.
Instead: Visit some of Amsterdam’s authentic small museums: Museum van Loon, offering a glimpse into the grandeur of 17th-century Holland, or the award-winning Tassenmuseum, an homage to small bags and purses. On the Ij River, EYE salutes international cinema, while Katten Kabinet celebrates cats in a canal house replete with art by Picasso, Rembrandt and Toulouse-Lautrec, all with felines on center stage.
6. Tourist Coffeeshops. Want to be ripped off for inferior weed? Patronize The Bulldog coffeeshops, Barney’s or any of the dives around Warmoesstraat and Leidseplein. While some may be fine for a smoke, most offer sub-par product and a touristy environment.
Instead: Find local flavor and good product at Tweede Kamer, one of Amsterdam’s oldest coffeeshops, off Spuistraat, or at Dampkring, where George Clooney and Brad Pitt famously romped around in Hollywood’s Oceans 12. Better yet, chill out with residents in Vondelpark or any of the city’s other green spaces.
7. Damrak. Although it’s home to Beurs van Berlage (the former stock exchange) and posh department store The Bijenkorf, the artery leading from Central Station to Dam Square is an embarrassment to both locals and city government. While there’s a movement to transform it into Amsterdam’s Champs-Élysées, replacement of its tacky shops, cheap hotels, fast food joints and tourist restaurants with chic boutiques has a long way to go.
Instead: Explore neighborhoods outside city center, from the picturesque Jordaan to De Pijp, home of the Albert Cuyp market. In the Oud-West, visit De Hallen, a transformed tram depot now housing an indoor food court, movie theaters, library, hotel and eclectic businesses.
8. Wooden Shoes. Countless tourists photograph themselves in the giant wooden clogs off Dam Square, on Reguliersbreestraat and elsewhere in town. Why?
Instead: Amsterdam’s Grachtengordel (Canal Belt) was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2010, making it a free outdoor museum. With its Golden Age mansions, graceful bridges and historic monuments, it offers limitless photogenic vistas.
9. Live Sex at Casa Rosso. In Europe’s erotic capital, live sex performed on stage may surprise no one. See how seductive it is (or not) at De Wallen’s oldest live sex theater, where couples engage in sexual intercourse while thinking about paying bills. If you’re part of a bachelor party, it may be worth €37 (€47 with two drinks) to experience the iconic club marked by a neon pink elephant. If not, consider less expensive, more erotic options.
Instead: Be a voyeur in a Red Light District cabin for a mere €2. Have a stack of €2 coins ready to view more than a few minutes of sexual interaction. Gain deeper insight into the practice of sex for money at the Prostitute Information Center run by Mariska Majoor, a former prostitute.
Instead: Skip the kitsch and visit Kinderdijk, 19 spinning windmills in a natural habitat east of Rotterdam that adds credibility to an old saying: “God made the world but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”