Schiphol International Airport handles all flights coming into and out of Amsterdam, from your one-hour flight from London to your eight-hour flight from Chicago. It is located 20 miles southwest of Amsterdam and is easily accessible from the city center by train.
When you get off of the plane, follow the signs (they are all in English) to the arrivals lobby. If your flight originated outside of the European Union, you will need to get your passport stamped. Don’t worry; the lines here are much shorter than the lines at U.S. airports. Once in the arrivals lobby, find an ATM and withdraw some euros. Unlike ATMs in the U.S., Dutch ATMs don’t charge you a fee for withdrawing money, which means that there is no reason to avoid airport ATMs. Your bank may charge you a fee for using the ATM, but they won’t care which one you use. What about the bureaus de change that dot the airport halls? Skip them. You will get the best exchange rate by using an ATM. Your bank may charge you a foreign transaction fee, which can be minimized by using a credit union instead. How much should you withdraw? A hundred euros or less. Use your credit card for everything you can, saving your cash for things like breweries, markets and places that only accept cash.
Next, you will need to buy train tickets to get from the airport to Amsterdam Centraal station. As of this writing, a one-way trip will cost you €3.90, but it seems to go up by about €0.10 every year or so. Follow the signs that have a picture of a train on them until you reach a large hall. In the middle, you will see lots of gleaming, yellow automated ticket machines without lines. Unfortunately, they only accept “chip and pin” cards. These are debit cards that use a chip instead of a magnetic strip and are not issued by banks (or credit unions!) in the U.S., which means your card will not work in these machines. You will have to stand in line at the national rail ticket counter near the ticket machines. You may use cash or credit cards here, but there will be €0.50 euro surcharge for NOT using the machines, making it €4.40 euro each way. There will be sign on the ticket counter stating the price and platform for trains into Amsterdam, but you can always ask, too. If you are flying out of Schiphol, you may as well buy your return ticket now. There is no round trip discount, but you will not have stand in line a second time. Your total for a round trip journey from Schiphol Airport to Amsterdam Centraal purchased from a ticket agent: €8.80 euro per person. If the ATM only gave you €50 notes, be sure to pay for your tickets with cash to break it into smaller notes. You will see why soon.
Now that you have your luggage, your stamped passport, some local currency and your train ticket, take the escalator near the ticket counter down to the train platforms. Trains run about every 10 minutes and the journey takes about 20 minutes. Use this time to enjoy the Dutch scenery (it is so…flat) or study your map of Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is one of the most compact and easy to navigate capitals in Europe, and the city center contains all of the places you are likely to see on a visit. Everything is close enough to walk, but biking or using a tram can reduce travel time. The streets (straats) of the city are not laid out in a grid, like Manhattan or Milwaukee: the Manhattan of the Midwest™, nor does it have a medieval layout, like London, where the streets meander through the city and change names every other block. Instead, many streets run alongside the canals (grachts), that give Amsterdam the nickname “the Venice of the North.” Amsterdam began as a medieval outpost when the river Amstel was dammed. Today, a map of central Amsterdam looks similar to a clamshell, fan, an amphitheater or a horseshoe. Centraal station, the city’s (and country’s) main train station is located at the top of the horseshoe (where the stage would be in an amphitheater). Jutting straight out from station into the western side of the middle of the horseshoe is the Damrak, the tacky, touristy area. This area is best avoided. Hotels are expensive and restaurants tend to be of the fast food and chain variety. To the east of the Damrak is the Red Light District. The area is worth touring and, in home to some pretty good beer.
Surrounding the center are four canals laid out in a semi-circle. These canals start at the Ij in the west, loop around the center, and end at the Ij in the east. From the center, going outwards, they are: Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht. The Jordaan, is located to the west of the canal rings, the museumplein and Vondelpark to the southwest, De Pijp to the south, Amstel to the southeast and the plantage to the east.
Behind Centraal Station is the River Ij (“aye”) and Noord Amsterdam across the river. Noord Amsterdam is easily accessible by a free ferry that departs from Centraal Station every 15 minutes or so. The ride is short (about 5 minutes) but it offers a unique view of the city center and allows you to access the sleepy side of the city north of the river. With a bike, towns to the north like Monnickendam and Edam (yes, the birthplace of the cheese) make a great day trip.
Street names are labeled on blue signs mounted near the second story of buildings on the corners, but keep your eyes in front of you. Amsterdam is very pedestrian friendly city, but the streets are jammed with bicycles, cars, buses and trams. Be careful crossing the streets, even the narrow ones. There are more forms of transportation to collide with you than you are probably used to. Keeping your eyes open will hopefully make a warning chirp from a bicycle bell the worst you encounter.
Amsterdam, and indeed the whole of the Netherlands, is cyclist’s paradise. There are bike paths everywhere. Through cities, towns, farmland, forests, beaches and along highways, paths for your bike are as ubiquitous as roads for your car. Rent a bike anywhere really. We like MAC Bikes, but there are many others. Prices are cheap, too. 10 euros per day will get you a decent ride, and you can always upgrade if you like. Usually, you will need to put a deposit on your credit card and show your passport before they will let you leave with your bike. Be aware of the bike shop’s hours-if you don’t return your bike in time, you just rented it for another day. Don’t feel like you have to stay within the city limits, though. There are a ton of bike-friendly day trips around Amsterdam, or you can take a train further afield and rent a bike there.
You can always bring your own bike too – it counts as a carry on for most legacy (not budget!) airlines. Cycling from Schiphol to Amsterdam is fairly easy too – provided that you are not completely jet lagged from your journey.
Thinking of staying at hotel, eating at a restaurant or visiting a museum or park that seems too far to walk and you don’t have bike? Consider taking a tram. They are frequent and easy to use and are nothing to be afraid of. When you arrive at Centraal station, grab your luggage and follow the signs for the exit. You will have to go down the stairs, then underneath the tracks. If you are planning on using the trams, buses or metro buy a pass here before you leave the station. They come in 1 hour, 1 day, and multiple day increments as well as a reloadable card. The reloadable card, called the OV-chipkaart is the best deal. It requires an initial outlay of €7.50, plus the balance you want to put on the card. The advantage is that you are only charged for the rides you use. A single ride card is sold as a 1 hour pass for €3.60. If you use the OV-chipkaart, most rides to areas in the Museumplein or De Pijp are going to debit your card about €0.50, so the OV-chipkaart pays for itself after just a few rides. In the front lobby near all of the ticket counters are the blue, pink and white ticket machines that sell chipkaarts for use on the city’s transportation systems. Some of these machines take cash (the others only accept chip and pin cards). Remember when I told you to have denominations smaller than 50 euro notes? That’s because these machines only take up to 20 euro notes. Walk up to the machine, select English, and decide which pass you want. Feed your cash in and you will get the passes and change out. To use your chipkaart, just pass it in front of the white sensor with the pink transit logo on it when you enter and exit. It is that easy.
Don’t. With extensive bike paths, a wonderful rail network, little parking and gasoline costing three times as much as it does in the US, renting a car in the Netherlands does not make a lot of sense.