first overseas travel (amsterdam) what do I need to know

I don’t even know what I should know. I’m pretty much a small town homebody. I’ve been to California, Louisiana, and Pennslyvania…Oh, and I spent a couple of weeks in the woods of Ontario. So I’m pretty much “Unworldly” and unsophisticated.

This is a business trip, but I’ll probably have some free time for visiting things. I’d appreciate having an idea of what I things I should research and know about before the trip.

Otherwise I fear I’ll just sit in my hotel room watching dubbed “Three’s Company” reruns.
Beats me if this should go in GQ, or IMHO or the Cafe. I’m pretty much looking for factual answers but I’ll leave it to the mods to shove it around.

Amsterdam is a gorgeous city. It’s a bit expensive, but just walking around is a treat. If you spend the entire time in your hotel room watching TV, I may have to hunt you down. There are a lot of companies offering canal boat tours for a reasonable price, and I recommend this for your first day – it’s a nice, relaxing thing to do when you’re jet-lagged, and a good way to get oriented.

Pretty much everybody speaks English, most of them very well – I tried to learn a few words of Dutch before I went, figuring it was the polite thing to do, but I mangled them so badly that nobody could tell what I was saying, so you’re probably better off just speaking English from the start.

The most convenient way to exchange money is by ATM, but you should check with your bank before you leave home to make sure your card will work and they won’t charge exhorbitant fees (most European banks let non-account-holders withdraw money from their ATMs for free, but they often soak you at the American end).

There are tons of things to see and do, but since I don’t know your interests, you’re probably better off just getting a travel guide and deciding for yourself what you want to do. The one specific thing I’ll say is that you should go to the Anne Frank house just like everybody else does, but go to the Dutch Resistance Museum first – it’s excellent, and it’s a good way to get a feel for the bigger picture.

I haven’t been to Amsterdam, but two small things that may be useful:

Flying east across the Atlantic will probably be an overnight flight, you might not get much sleep, and you’ll arrive in the morning. As tired as you’ll be, try to stay awake until the early evening. That’ll get you over the time change as quickly as possible.

If you’re going to use your ATM card, make sure you know your PIN by number. The cash machines in Europe don’t have the letters on the buttons.

I’d recommend visiting the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum as the two essentials. Beyond that just walk around the town and soak up the Dutchness of everything. Try to take a train trip out of town if you can, even if it’s only to Maastricht and back. The landscape near Amsterdam really does look just like a Dutch master’s painting.

Also, a couple of words of caution for the other well known aspects of the city. If you do decide to partake of cannabis, buy and smoke the product on the premises of the coffeeshop. Do not put any in your pocket to take back to the hotel or smoke later. The absolute last thing you want is to forget that you hava a joint in your pocket while you’re walking through customs. And don’t try to take photos in the Red Light District. Bouncers will show up.

Well I grew up in the Netherlands though hardly spent any time in Amsterdam…but let’s see;

Language - don’t worry about not knowing Dutch, everyone and I mean everyone speaks English (and speaks it well)

Money - use the ATMs, learn your PIN by number and notify your bank so they don’t close your account for suspicious foreign activity

Touristy things - Amsterdam is full of touristy things; canaltours, biketours, guided tours (or a combo of any of the before mentioned), coffeeshops for some relaxation (and I don’t mean Starbucks), museums, parks, Casino, galleries

Food - plenty of restaurants from cheap to expensive. Local favs to try; pannekoeken (dutch pancakes), anything from a frituur (you think you Americans know fastfood, think again), Falafel, and poffertjes

BTW you’ll be hard pressed finding a channel running Three is Company reruns. And also refrain from wearing a fannypack - nothing shouts tourist in Europe as a fannypack

I do not know the specifics about the netherlands, but call your bank before hand and check everything. I was trapped in Japan without cash for a couple of days because my ATM pin was 11 digits, and the japanese system only allows 4. I had to authorize international cash advance on a credit card, but it took forever to figure out what was wrong.

I’m so envious. Amsterdam is such a cool place.

My pointers:

I’m not suggesting that you will fall into this trap, but I’ve seen it a few times: we don’t complain about service as much this side of the pond. We probably should, as it would make things better for us, but often it’s a stereotypical attribute attached to “the ugly American”. Just remember that things work a little differently, and try to let things slide a little more - your food might take longer to get to the table, for example, but it’ll get there in the end. Though clearly if someone’s been completely out of order, or you get the wrong food, then fire away.

Also, customizing your order in restaurants/delis is less common - not many people ask for stuff on the side, or substituted: they just take what they get, though people might ask for stuff to be excluded. Ordering a coffee is often just “a coffee please” - no skinny hazelnut soy lattes and so on, though I don’t doubt you could find one if you tried.

That said, you shouldn’t have any problems, as Amsterdam is an efficient, pleasant, modern city with a fantastic history and culture, and 99% of the people speak English perfectly.

The city’s pretty small and easy to walk about, but do watch out for the trams and cycle lanes when strolling. If you can figure out the tram system, they’re really fun to get around on.

Note the pissoirs (standalone urinals, some mobile) that appear on street corners! Men only.

In addition to the other cultural pointers, the Van Gogh museum is great if you like his work. A lot of paintings, but still a manageable size.

I second the thing about staying awake. It’s hard to do the first night, but worth it.

“Brown cafés” are nice traditional pub-type places, named after their painted interiors. If you like meat, go to Café de Klos - best ribs I’ve ever had, at a ridiculously low price.

If you’re at a loose end, Boom Chicago is an American improv comedy troupe that for some reason has made its home in Amsterdam. Go at the end of your trip, as a lot of the humour is about the city. I’ve been twice, and both times were hilariously funny.

Febo is a fast food chain where you get stuff out of little lockers, dine-O-mat style. I recommend their croquettes as a snack. Mmmmm.

Finally, if you’re tempted by what’s sold in the coffee shops, beware that the stuff they sell is very, very strong.

I nearly forgot, Randy Roy’s Red Light Tour. To make reservations call 06 41 85 3288. Not at all expensive, and definitely gives a lot more context to vice in Amsterdam than just wandering around. The best part is it’s led by a woman who’s old enough to be my mother. I highly recommend it.

A good little print-out guide here with stuff about tipping and so on. Also I recommend the Lonely Planet city guide to Amsterdam (should also be available in most bookstores).

I was there several years ago. If you still can, get a multiday pass for the city trams. That way, you can walk and wander as long as you want or until you get tired, and then hop the tram back. No more having to stop half way, so you have time to get back.

If you have a free day, visit the flower auction at Aalsmeer. It’s in the Amsterdam suburbs. If you don’t have a car you can get there by bus. Go early. It’s amazing, watching all the flowers and plants going by.

Something I try when ever I travel. Learn thank you and please. If you show a degree of politeness, people will often bend over backwards helping you out.

Stuff a business card from your hotel in your wallet. If you need to take a cab, that will get you back.

In fact, unless you’re going outside the city, I’d say don’t whatever you do rent a car. Taxis, trams, buses are plentiful; Amsterdam and cars are pretty incompatible, and parking is a nightmare.

Don’t go to any ‘traditional Dutch cuisine’ restaurants unless it’s for a pancake. There’s a reason Indonesian food and shoarma are so popular. Have some fries with mayonaise, at least, or move out into the more interesting sauces. You’ll never go back to ketchup and other children’s foods.
It’s a pretty safe town but don’t buy dope on the street. There are reputable establishments for that purpose of every kind. Also, there is a. . . ‘chocolatier’. . . on Spui called Chocolat that sells praline-syle ‘chocolates’ and ‘cake’. . . Beware, however. I don’t have any input on working girls.
If you want a vista I think you can pay a little to go up the tower at the Westerkerk near Anne Frank House. DO take a boat ride-- it’s pleasant. The Rijksmuseum is swell. Van Gogh Museum is swell too but always so crammed with people.
Other things-- if you’re a beer guy the best pub in the center, IMO, is In de Wildeman on one of the little cross streets near the station–something with an R. . . Reep? Nice selection. Favorite regular pub is Onder de Ooievaar at the corner of, I think, Prinsengracht and Utrechtsestr. If you go to the Maritime Museum (which is cool if you like that sort of thing) and keep going out. . . Prins Hendrickkade(?) you come to a brewpub in an old windmill called Brouwerij 't Ij. Which is cool in that, you know, it’s a windmill and you can take a pic for your mom. If you like hard liquor try some jenevers while you’re in town-- ask for the bartender’s recommendation.
The trip to Haarlem is easy and fast and it’s a cute town. I think there’s a transfer if you want to go to Delft which is a VERY cute town. Or you could rent a bike and head north of the Ij and pedal around to some nice little towns.
If you buy flower bulbs make sure they’re ok’ed for US export-- a special seal or sticker for that.

You do have a passport, right? It can take about 6 weeks to get one unless you pay for it to be rushed.

Get a guidebook (I like Let’s Go best for this) and look through it before you leave.

I generally don’t drive when I’m on vacation overseas- it’s just not terribly helpful to have a car to see the sights in most of the cities, parking would be a pain, and gas is much more expensive than it is here.

If you do drive, be aware that their drunk-driving laws are more stringent than ours- 0.05 instead of 0.08. Rick Steves recommends drinking only after you are done with all driving for the day, which I think is an excellent idea. If you’re going to smoke pot, don’t drive after doing that, either.

Weather forecasts are in centigrade. If you (like me) are used to Fahrenheit and can’t do the conversion in your head, this is generally close enough:

30 is hot
20 is nice
10 is cold
0 is ice

Don’t bother with traveler’s checks, and don’t exchange cash if you can help it. It’s much more convenient to get money at an ATM when you arrive at the airport (assuming that you have a 4-digit PIN). I haven’t been to the Netherlands, but in Britain, France, Italy, and Ireland I had no problems finding places that took credit cards. In Australia a lot of places had a minimum charge, though. You might want to let your credit card companies know you’ll be travelling- sometimes they see foreign charges and flag it as potential fraud, and you can’t use the card until you call them and straighten things out.

Not all hotels have private bathrooms in every room. You should ask beforehand if a room has an ensuite bathroom, if this is important to you. If you do stay in a hotel with a shared bathroom, a word of advice- there is a time and a place for hour-long showers, and a shared bathroom in a hotel isn’t one of them. Oh, and be sure to lock (not just close) the door when you are using a shared bathroom so no one barges in on you. I wouldn’t expect a bathtub in the bathroom, unless I were staying at a really fancy hotel (or Dutch hotel standards are very different from British/French/Irish/Italian standards).

If the Netherlands is like France, Ireland, and Italy, soft drinks will be much more expensive than wine or beer at most restaurants (and will come in much smaller portions than we’re used to, and don’t come with free refills). You might have to order “tap water” if you want what you’d get in an American restaurant if you asked for water- a lot of European restaurants will assume “water” means bottled mineral water. Bottled mineral water doesn’t taste anything like our bottled water.

If there are any foods you don’t like or don’t eat (if you’re a vegetarian, for example), learn the names of those foods in Dutch, so you can recognize them on a menu. A guidebook might help here. The translation of a menu entry doesn’t always have as much information as the original.

You’ll probably see a lot more people smoking there than you would here, and you’re less likely to be able to find a non-smoking hotel room. If you’re allergic to cigarette smoke (like me), be sure you have enough allergy medication to last through the trip.

Take comfortable shoes with you. You will probably be doing a lot more walking than you normally do, and that’s miserable when your feet hurt.

Oh, on tipping, as that link says round-up to tip TOPS. It’s already included, although some places in the center I’m sure have a tradition of not mentioning this to Americans, especially, who tend to tip generously anyway; I suspect some places will actually unscrupulously encourage it. If any waitstaff in a touristy restaurant give you the hairy eyeball for no tip, they’re trying to take advantage of the naive. Amsterdam is SO used to American tourists that I think an alternate-universe Amsterdam of American-frequented places has developed its own set of commonplace rules to milk yankees. Don’t fall for it. They don’t do this with anyone speaking Dutch.

Just a couple of other points:

(1) You have to ASK for your check/bill at the end of a meal. At most places in Amsterdam (and the whole of Europe) they are happy for you to sit there as long as you like.

(2) Go see the Red Light District. Even though you are on a business trip - don’t be weirded out. It’s something that everyone should see at least once.

(3) I’ll echo the Van Gogh museum.

(4) Try the Heinekein (sp?)! Despite what the company says it DOES taste different over there. And it’s freaking awesome! But…

(4a) … and this hurts to say … DON’T go to the Heinekien brewery. Oh, I know - it used to be this awesome tour with free beer and cheese and laughter and camaraderie. NO LONGER. It’s a rush you through, pre-molded, “cool” “Experience!” now. It’s awful, and don’t let anyone tell you different.

(5) Don’t walk in the bicycle lanes. Hehe. That little BRRING BRRING means “Get the fuck out of the bike lane, you stupid tourist!”

  • Peter Wiggen

I was there last year. Had 0 problems with language or cultural issues, like the straight dope says, don’t be a jerk. It’s amazing to stand on a street corner within 50 yards of the Anne Frank house, the church where Rembrant is buried in a paupers grave and a giant pink triangle memorial to persecuted homosexuals. I would echo the Van Gogh and Rijkmuseums, they’re right next to each other, take a bike/walk through the park thats near there, and the cafe on the corner is very good, if a tad spendy. But remember that the Euro is strong against the dollar right now. Public transport is fully adequate in the canal district, and don’t be afraid the cuise the red lights is your interested. The place is full of tourists every night, thats half the business of the place, and you won’t stand out,
have fun,
Larry (jealous)

Oh and btw, scooters use the bike lanes too, and they get going at quite a clip, plenty of foot and bicycle traffic, but they do expect you to pay attention.

Speaking from bitter experience, if you’re planning to partake of Amsterdam’s many fine cannabis-based products, it’s far better to smoke them than to eat them. It’s very easy to OD and make yourself as sick as a dog if you eat hash, since the effects don’t kick in for maybe an hour after you eat it. Without the direct, immediate feedback like you get from smoking, you can easily mess yourself up, especially since drugs there are very strong, as someone else mentioned.

I definitely recommend the Anne Frank house and the Van Gogh museum and Rijksmuseum.

Try the Indonesian food (I had a delicious rijstafel there) and some french fries with mayonnaise. I didn’t try the Chinese food when I was there, but they had the most authentic-looking and authentic-smelling roast ducks I had seen of anywhere in Europe. You might already have good Chinese food in your town back in the US, though :slight_smile:

If you plan to buy any produce, read up in a guidebook on the etiquette–that was one of the things that kept tripping me up the first time I went to Europe. I had read up on tipping and restaurant etiquette, but I was totally clueless when it came to buying fruit. In Italy, I kept trying to pick up fruit at greengrocers’ stalls (you should let them pick it out for you) and I went up to a supermarket cashier with a bunch of fruit and vegetables that I hadn’t weighed; I ended up holding up an entire line of irate Italians while the cashier went back to the produce area to weigh everything and put stickers on the bags. They were simply not set up to weigh produce at the checkout area. I don’t remember if this works the same way in the Netherlands, but I would watch out if you plan to provide yourself with fruit for snacks/picnic lunches.

If you’re going to take public transportation anywhere, make sure you know how to validate your ticket. You will probably have to buy the ticket from somewhere off the train/bus, such as a newstand or a machine at the stop, and then stamp the ticket yourself in a machine on the bus/train/tram.

P.S. The Dutch word for “sample” is “monster.” The Dutch word for “urine sample” is “urinemonster.” I hope you find a way to somehow work this into conversation while you’re in Amsterdam.

If you rent a bicycle (which is tons of fun- it’s the best biking city imaginable) make sure you really do use all three locks on it and make sure to leave yourself plenty of time to return your bike before the bike shop closes on your last day (I got lost in the red light district on a bike with twenty minutes left until the shop closed and my plane left late that night.)

BUY STROOPWAFFLES! These are wonderful things. Amazing things. Things you will long for for the rest of your life. They are little thin waffles full of syrup. You can buy big ones hot from street vendors (don’t burn yourself) or rolls of them from any bakery. They really are that worth it. I bought one package to try, then bought three more packages to eat, and then five to take home to give away- and I ate them all and ended having to buy my take-home ones from the airport. They are that good.

Thumb through a Rick Steves guide on the place. He has great advice on restraunts and unrestrained advice on what sights are worth it and which are rip offs.