Top Tips for Visiting the Netherlands

The Netherlands is a wonderful country to visit, offering everything from the historic and cultural center of Amsterdam to the modern and artistic city of Rotterdam to idyllic windmills and small towns. Yes, the Netherlands offers a little bit of everything to visitors, including the plethora of “coffeshops” which sell much more than just coffee, if you’re into that sort of thing (more on this later).

Dutch people in general are quite nice, although perhaps a little aloof. In our experience, they are not overly outgoing with outsiders but are typically friendly and polite. They’re pretty much like most people everywhere else.

If you’re an American and you’re new to the Netherlands, however, it can be a bit confusing at times so we wanted to provide our top tips to enjoy your visit!

Getting Around

The Netherlands offers one of the best public transportation systems in the world and is extremely pedestrian and bike-friendly so getting around can be a cinch if you know the ins and outs.

First, a great way to get around many areas (besides walking) is by bicycle. You will see public kiosks where you can rent a bike easily, and there are private companies offering this service as well. If you’re staying in a hotel, ask at the front desk because they may have bikes you can borrow or rent cheaply from them. Or, if you’re using AirBnB, many hosts will also allow you to borrow or rent their bikes. Make sure you always lock your bike! There is relatively little crime in the Netherlands compared to many countries but bike theft is one of the more common crimes there.

If you’re walking, make sure you always watch out for the bike lane, which is pretty obvious as it is a reddish color and has its own little track on the side of the roads. If you’re walking in these bike lanes, do not be surprised if you get run over or yelled at by angry Dutch bikers. When crossing the bike lanes, look both ways just in case and cross quickly, don’t linger or walk in the bike lanes!

For mass transit, there are several options depending where you are travelling: train, metro, tram, or bus.

The train refers mainly to longer distance train routes from city to city. The metro refers to rapid transit trains within the city or immediate vicinity, while the tram is slower aboveground light rail transportation around the city. Lastly, the bus system is mainly used for getting around in more rural areas or to areas of the cities not serviced by the other transport options.

Train tickets are purchased at a train station either from the tickets desk or a kiosk. Metro tickets can also be purchased at train stations or metro stations. For tram or bus fare, you can simply pay the driver when you board for a ticket good for 1 hour of travel.

The Dutch also have simplified this system by offering some all in one options, such as the refillable OV-chipkaart (or chipcard), which is good for the tram, metro, and bus. In Amsterdam or Rotterdam (possibly other cities as well), you can buy a tourist card that will allow you unlimited public transport and admission to many attractions over a specified period, such as 48 hours. These may or may not be worth it depending how long you are staying and how many attractions you want to visit, so do your research before buying!

This page is a great resource for visiting Amsterdam in particular, but provides a good overview of public transport options in general as well.

Phrases to Know

Although pretty much everyone in the Netherlands speaks English, it’s good to know a few basic Dutch phrases to be polite and fit in a little better. Plus learning some of the local language is part of experiencing the culture, like eating the food or seeing the sights!

Please = Alstublieft – pronounced “AL-stoo-bleeft”

Thank you = Dank u wel – pronounced “DANK-ew-vel”

Thanks = Bedankt – pronounced “buh-DONKT” – more informal way to say thank you

Hi / hello = Hoi / Hallo – pronounced “HOY” or “HA-low”

Goodbye = Tot ziens – pronounced “TOTE-zeens”

Yes = Ja – pronounced “YAH”

No = Nee – pronounced “NAY”

Sorry / Excuse Me = Sorry – pronounced basically same as English!

Do you speak English? = Spreekt u Engels? – pronounced “SPREEKT- oo-ANG-els?”

Where is the toilet? = Waar is het toilet? – pronounced “WAR-is-a-TOY-let?”

Eating/Tipping

There are a wide assortment of eating options in the Netherlands, like most other countries. There are a lot of Turkish and kebab places that can be good cheap eats in many places, as well as something a little different from what you may be used to in the U.S. or other countries (although kebab is quite prevalent throughout European cities).

Tipping is not expected and you really don’t have to tip. Sometimes a tip will be included in the bill, but we found this to be rarely the case when we ate out. If you had a friendly server or exceptional service, you may want to round up the bill to the nearest Euro or leave at most a Euro or two. You do not need to tip bartenders either although if it’s very busy at the bar, it may earn you faster service (or it may not). If you do tip, make sure to give it to the server or person who helped you, otherwise someone else may snag it.

Sightseeing

There are countless options for sightseeing in the Netherlands, it really just depends on where you are going and what you like to see.

If you like art and museums, definitely check out Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. We only had enough time and energy to check out one so we went to the Rijksmuseum. The Rijksmuseum is more like the British Museum or Louvre in that it contains not just art but also various antiquities and other objects. The collection of Dutch Masters (i.e. Rembrandt, Vermeer, etc.) is very extensive. The highlight is the Night Watch by Rembrandt (which ironically enough, is actually a scene during the day that became darkened by aging over the years, and no, it has nothing to do with Game of Thrones).

The Van Gogh Museum is focused on more modern art from not only Van Gogh but other famous impressionists and great artists. There are of course many other art museums in both Amsterdam and other cities in the Netherlands but these are the two big ones.

For the museums, it’s a good idea to buy your tickets in advance from a tourism office or online, to save time. As mentioned above, you can also buy all inclusive tourist passes that will give you entry into many attractions, but you should take a look at the prices online to decide if this makes sense for you or not. If you’re going to be there for at least a couple of days and plan to see several attractions, this can be a good deal, but if you’re travelling on a budget and only planning to see one or two major attractions, it’s typically better to buy a la carte.

If you like architecture, Rotterdam and Amsterdam both offer great options. Rotterdam is more modern due to the damage the city sustained in bombings during WWII, while Amsterdam is more typical of European cities with older architecture.

Rotterdam has a lot of art in public places in the city as well. One of the highlights is the famous cube houses, which are rather surreal to look at, almost like something out of an M.C. Escher drawing! You can see the inside of a demo unit for a few euros. If you go see the cube houses, make sure to stop by the nearby Markthal which is a giant marketplace inside of an architecutural wonder of an office building. It’s a great place to grab a bite for lunch and do a little shopping or just browse the wares.

If you’re into windmills, then you’ll need to get outside of the cities although we saw quite a few from the train windows! There are many other attractions also, and many tourists enjoy taking a boat tour through the canals of Amsterdam, among other options. These are just a few ideas to get you started!

And of course, the “coffeeshops…”

You really can’t mention the Netherlands or Amsterdam in particular without mentioning the coffeeshops (and not because of their coffee). Many people from around the world, particularly the U.S., can’t resist spending some time in them. This wasn’t the primary reason we visited but we felt like we had to try one or two just for the experience. Mom, if you’re reading this, please stop now. 😉

They are everywhere you go, and are pretty easily identified. As a general rule of thumb, “coffeeshops” (one word) sell weed, while “coffee shops” (two words) and “cafes” typically do not. If you see a glowing green pot leaf, you are in the right place (or wrong place, depending on your proclivity).

The Dutch seem to have mixed feelings about the tourism generated from marijuana, which is understandable. Over the last 5 to 10 years, there have been efforts to curb weed tourism, although it’s still a big source of tourist traffic, particularly in Amsterdam. If you do go, just remember the maximum amount you can possess outside of the coffeeshops is 5 grams and it’s not really “legal” so much as it is tolerated. Generally you won’t have any problems as long as you’re not being an idiot.

Don’t smoke in public places, as this is illegal (although we certainly smelled it from time to time just walking around the streets and parks). Smoke in the coffee shops or you can find some bars and other establishments that will allow you to smoke even though they don’t sell it. If in doubt, ask the server or bartender, and be respectful.

Keep in mind the wares offered are generally quite potent, so if you’re not accustomed to using marijuana, or don’t use it very frequently, take it easy! The edibles in particular can be quite strong (although we didn’t try them) and take an hour or two to kick in so it’s easy to overdo it and then find yourself melting into a puddle of goo or freaking out and having a bad experience.

Also, pickpockets, scam artists, and other criminals (though rare) do target tourists who are drunk or high, so this is another good reason to keep your wits about you to some degree and not overindulge.

Many coffeeshops are fine with you bringing in stuff you purchased elsewhere and smoking it, others are not and insist you must buy their goods to smoke there, so just be aware of this, and again, if in doubt, ask! The bars that allow smoking are a better bet if you need to smoke something you purchased previously.

Lastly, many of the coffeeshops serve coffee (who would have thought?) and munchies as well. If it’s on the menu, order yourself a milkshake…you will be so glad you did!

Hopefully these tips help you enjoy your time in the Netherlands. There are many other things that we could go into but the above should give you a good crash course on the highlights. Do your research and of course, be jolly!

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