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There's an Amsterdam for everyone. The Dutch capital works as a cheap weekend away for hard-partying youngsters; as gallery-packed city break for culture lovers; even as a deep dive into the highs and lows of European history. And with a canal-webbed layout and cafes for days, it's equally good for a weekend of idle wandering. Amsterdam's visitor numbers are huge, and keep climbing – which is what happens when you combine a distinctive cityscape with a smorgasbord of cultural attractions and a relaxed, liberal vibe.
Let's start with that cityscape. The Centrum district fans out from the central Nieuwmarkt square, bounded by concentric canals. Within Singel – the innermost canal – you'll find the city's historic core. You'd be surprised how little it can cost to stay here, but many of the budget options are rough-and-ready hostels; if you want luxury here, it'll cost you. Either way, you'll be close to some of Amsterdam's key attractions and best shopping, as well as popular (and often raucous) nightlife neighbourhoods Leidesplein and Rembrandtsplein.
For a city break with a bit of an edge, try Jordaan, on the west of the centre. Its 'Nine Streets' neighbourhood has some of the city's best independent shopping, and there are a couple of big-hitting attractions too, notably the Anne Frank House. Accommodation is generally small-scale, but that's very much in keeping with Jordaan's vibe, and there are some good upmarket boutique hotels popping up alongside the mid-market guesthouses.
Further south, the two-hander of Vondelbuurt and Museumkwartier is perfect for a chilled, cultured holiday. Largely residential and much quieter than the Centrum neighbourhoods at night, the area comes into its own during the day, when you can explore the expansive Vondelpark and a clutch of superb galleries – the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum for fine art, and Moco and Stedelijk for contemporary work.
For a different vibe altogether, try going north of Centrum to Eastern Docklands or Amsterdam Noord. It switches cute canal houses for large-scale modern and post-industrial architecture, and narrow waterways for the expanse of the river IJ. There are a couple of interesting cultural attractions on Amsterdam Noord's waterfront – particularly the EYE Film Museum – and the free ferries to and from Centrum give you a perspective on the city that few tourists see.
Amsterdam's pretty, walkable centre lends itself to summer trips, but peak season is not without its problems. Throughout July and August the city packs a huge number of visitors into a relatively small centre, which means that things get congested, particularly around the big attractions. Flight and hotel prices will be considerably higher too, though Amsterdam's strong showing on budget accommodation does mitigate that to some extent – just be aware you might have to trade down on accommodation to stay within budget.
To save money, visit during spring or autumn, which also bring cooler temperatures and fewer crowds – though spring is the busier of the two thanks to tulip season (April-May) and King's Day (late April). Winter is the dark horse here, with rock-bottom prices but lots of potential for an atmospheric stay, particularly if snow falls and the canals freeze over enough for ice-skating. If you can cope with the cold and you're happy with indoor attractions, it's a good option.
Street markets pop up across the city and boat parties carry on into the night for this nationwide celebration of the King’s birthday. The event draws in nearly a million visitors each year, and orange clothing (the official colour of the Dutch monarchy) is essential.
At the annual Canal Festival, local musicians make the city’s famous waterways their stage for a week-long concert. The event culminates in a free outdoor performance, Prinsengrachtconcert, which spectators are encourage to view from the best vantage point – the canals.
You can stroll across the centre of Amsterdam in around 30 minutes, but if you want to get around quicker there's an efficient network of trams, metros, buses and ferries, mostly operated by public transport company GVB.
For most casual visitors to the city, GVB's time-limited passes are the best option. They allow unlimited travel on GVB services, including night buses, and are available for any number of days from one to seven. There's also a one-hour version for single journeys. GVB's transport services are now cashless, so if you're planning to buy on board, you'll need to pay by card.
For travel to and from Schiphol Airport, the train is your best bet; the airport's station is a few minutes' walk from the arrivals hall, and the journey to Centraal station takes around 15 minutes. A single ticket will set you back around €5.30. The Airport Express 397 bus route is only slightly cheaper at around €5, and takes 30 minutes – but it terminates in Jordaan, so is useful if you're staying in that part of town.
You can also pick up hire cars at Schiphol, and at a few locations in the city, but you'll have little use for a vehicle if you're focusing on central Amsterdam. As for bike hire, independent hire spots can be found all over town, and it's a great way to get around. Expect to pay €10-15 per day for a standard two-wheeler.
Finally, a note on alternative cards: the Amsterdam Travel Card is like GVB's day passes, but includes trains to Schiphol, GVB trains and regional buses. If you're staying central the standard day passes offer slightly better value. There's also the I amsterdam City Card, which is a GVB pass with some free or discounted attractions and activities included. At €59 for 24 hours, you need to be sure you'll make the most of it – if you plan to rinse Museumkwartier it could be a sound investment, but otherwise stick to the day passes.
Visa: British Citizens do not require a visa for the Netherlands
Entry requirements: Your passport should be valid for the duration of your stay, and should be in good condition. The Netherlands authorities sometimes impound damaged passports.
Vaccinations: None required
Emergency number: 112 for all emergencies. Operators speak English as well as Dutch.