Stereotypes aside, the Netherlands isn’t all cannabis smoke and red lights – and there’s a lot more to see beyond Amsterdam. From historic towns to fields of blooming color, this tiny country holds a great amount of tradition, culture, and unrivalled charm.
Photo © iStock/kruwt
When it comes to the Netherlands, many travelers don’t think beyond Amsterdam, and many of those visitors don’t venture beyond the touristy attractions of the Old Center. But this tiny country has a lot more to offer, as well as some cultural nuances that are helpful to understand.
For example, although many foreigners use “Holland” and “the Netherlands” interchangeably, Holland actually refers to just two of the 12 provinces, North and South Holland (which are home to Amsterdam and some of the other best-known cities such as Utrecht and Rotterdam). The Netherlands refers to the entire country.
Before heading off on your trip to the lowlands, here are some other things to keep in mind.
1. English speakers don’t need to worry about a language barrier
The Dutch have won bragging rights to speaking the best English (as a second language) in Europe, knocking the Swedes and Danish off the top spot.
Don’t be afraid to ask for directions, recommendations or just have a chat in English. Almost all locals, especially in Amsterdam, speak some English and jump at the chance to practice and show off their skills.
In saying that, learning a few key phrases like Dankjewel (thank you) and Goedemorgen (good morning) is never a bad idea and will help you break the ice with locals.
Besides, you may already know more than you think, thanks to a surprising amount of Dutch coming directly from English.
2. Book tickets and accommodations in advance
Booking in advance can save you a headache, especially if you’re traveling to Amsterdam during peak season (between June and August). Hostels inside the city center usually get booked up in advance during summer, and some attractions can see you spending hours in a queue if you don’t book online.
If you plan on visiting the Anne Frank House, ensure you buy a ticket online prior to making your way there. Keep in mind that there are a limited number of tickets available each day. If you forgo buying online, be prepared to wait hours in a line that usually stretches around the block.
When it comes to major museums, your best option is purchasing the I Amsterdam City Card. This offers free entrance to most of the city’s cultural delights, including the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. It also includes unlimited use of public transport for the duration of your card.
3. Coffee shops in Amsterdam are different from cafes
It’s no secret that cannabis is legal (with some restrictions) in The Netherlands and many tourists flock to Amsterdam just to sample some of the local, uh, delicacies. If you plan to partake, bear in mind that cannabis is actually illegal in the Netherlands unless it is purchased and consumed on-site at a coffee shop. And don’t assume that all cities have the same policies as Amsterdam. Some municipalities, especially near the borders with Germany and Belgium, have measures in place that ban non-residents of the Netherlands from purchasing cannabis at their coffee shops. As of mid-May 2023, smoking cannabis outdoors in Amsterdam’s red light district will be prohibited. It’s possible that these measures may soon be implemented nationwide.
But, if an innocent cup of caffeine and slice of banana bread is all you’re after, steer clear of the coffee shops – those brownies aren’t the type you’re looking for. Instead, search for a cafe to get your hot chocolate fix.
4. Lock your bike… twice
If you’re hiring a bike during your stay – which is one of the best ways to explore the cities – ensure you leave the rental shop with a sturdy lock.
Usually bikes will come with a fixed lock that wraps around the wheel, and also a separate lock that you can use to secure the frame to a pole or bike rack – making the bike twice as hard to steal will deter thieves who are looking to make some easy cash.
On that note, if you hear “pssst, want to buy a bike?” while wandering the streets, ignore the cheap price they offer – it’s not worth the guilty conscience of knowing you’re getting around on a stolen ride.
5. Amsterdam’s Red Light District is relatively normal during the day
As soon as the sun sets, red lights tint the area and the streets really come to life. Visit at night to see the district in all its glory.
In daytime, it’s a lot less lively. Even though the women still tap on their windows during daylight, without the illuminated neon lights and buzzing atmosphere, it’s easier to see that it’s a real neighborhood, where regular people also live and work. It’s one oldest parts of the city center, with charming canals, historic churches, and typically Dutch buildings (which is why there is a proposal to move the Red Light District out of the center and into a new “erotic center” elsewhere in the city).
6. Don’t take pictures of the ladies in the Red Light District
Drunken backpackers, consider this your warning. Not only is it incredibly rude to treat the ladies in the windows like zoo animals, but taking photos of their profession will most likely result in your phone going for a swim.
Trust us, if any of the girls catch you trying to take a sneaky snap, there’s a good chance they will come out from behind their window, grab your phone and drown it in the nearby canal to teach you a lesson.
7. Don’t just plan on visiting Amsterdam
All too often travelers only plan enough time on their Netherlands itinerary to explore Amsterdam. But beyond this deservedly famous city, there are a number of other cities filled to the brim with traditional Dutch charm, many less than an hour’s distance from the capital.
Step away from touristy ‘Dam and and check out Haarlem, Utrecht, Maastricht, or Den Bosch, to name a few. It’s in these lesser-known places that you’ll discover Dutch culture away from the crowds.
8. The Dutch aren’t rude, they’re just direct
The Dutch are known for being extremely direct. Don’t take it personally, it’s in their culture to speak exactly what’s on their mind without biting their tongue.
From being brutally honest to extending a simple ‘no’ without explanation, you will always know where you stand with a Dutchie.
9. Buy an OV-chipkaart (OV-chip card) for public transit
The OV-Chipkaart is the public transport ticket system in the Netherlands, and can be used on all trains, trams, buses and metros.
You can buy a single-use card if you plan on only using it once, or an anonymous card if you plan on traveling via public transport more often. Simply check in and out of your journey using the card readers, and top up when necessary.
10. Watch out for the bike lanes
The bike lanes can be unforgiving to visitors who are, more often than not, hazards to cyclists. Keep an eye out for the designated bike lanes (which are painted red and marked with a symbol of a bike), as they can be easily stepped on if you’re not paying attention.
If you hear the ding of angry bells, quickly move off the lane – they’d rather hit you than stop.
You write: North and South Holland (which are home to Amsterdam and some of the other best-known cities such as Utrecht and Rotterdam).
Utrecht is in the province Utrecht so no part of Holland.