Canals, Museums, Oh My: Amsterdam by Bike

If you ask most foreigners what Amsterdam is best known for, chances are you’ll receive at least a few eyebrow-raising answers. But ask any local or traveller in-the-know and they’ll rave about Amsterdam’s beautiful canals, fabulous museums and, without a doubt, the cycling culture. 

It’s always fun to live like a local in a new place – and to do so in Amsterdam, you must explore the city on two wheels. After all, this is a city with more bikes than people!

Now, a word to the wise – bike riding in Amsterdam is fifty percent skill, fifty percent steely determination not to panic under any circumstances. The goal here is not just to get from Point A to Point B. It is to look cool, calm and collected, even as a few dozen locals zip by in a chorus of bells. I’m not quite sure I achieved the effortlessly cool and unbothered vibe of the locals; but I did have a lot of fun trying.

Cycling in Amsterdam is beautiful at any time, but it really takes on an extra magical quality during the holiday season. Zipping past twinkling lights, stopping in to enjoy a hot mulled wine (in moderation of course) and buying cute holiday gifts in artsy Jordaan – it’s what festive dreams are made of. So, while I’d recommend exploring Amsterdam by bike at any chance you get – there’s a few special holiday treats in this itinerary.

Day one: Checking off the main sites

Travelling by bike is not only a great way to feel like a real Amsterdammer for a day, but it’s also a convenient way to get around a city that can be quite congested. Despite its relatively modest size, Amsterdam really delivers when it comes to attractions, so being able to maximise the amount of time actually enjoying those attractions is key – and a bike really helps.

Starting place: Museumplein

It’s no secret that European capitals offer their fair share of museums, but those on offer in Amsterdam are particularly alluring. The quality is fantastic, and helpfully, you’ll find many of the main museums all located in the same square – ‘Museumplein’ (easy to remember, right?).

This includes the world-famous Rijksmuseum, which is home to over a million works spanning many centuries. Another showstopper is the Van Gogh Museum which (perhaps unsurprisingly) offers the world’s largest collection of the famed Dutch artist’s works. Together, these two museums were the ones that made our itinerary and they were both spectacular. 

One of the best things about visiting Amsterdam in the holidays was that we were also able to skate (well, wobble) our way around the ice skating rink that is set up in Museumplein between around November and January each year. It’s impossible not to feel the festive cheer when you’re skating!

Cycle the canals

There’s no doubt that part of what makes Amsterdam such a truly spectacular city is its many canals. So, from Museumplein we rode north via Marnixstraat along the Singelgracht Canal. It was all I could do not to fall off my bike as I gazed over at the canal, and lusted over the adorable canal boats dotted along either side.

Although it’s only a 2.7 kilometre (1.65 miles) ride to the next destination, it took us far longer than the predicted ten minutes. Apparently, stopping to take photos every two minutes really lengthens your travel time – but it’s well worth it!

Anne Frank House

Turning right after Rozengracht, we soon found ourselves at Anne Frank House, one of the most famous and moving attractions in Amsterdam. The annex of the home, where the young Anne Frank kept her famous diary, is open to the public. It’s undoubtedly moving to wander through, and while some might find it a confronting experience, there is also hope and inspiration throughout. 

It’s no wonder this is considered a “must do” by most Amsterdam city guides – I’d just recommend booking your ticket well in advance as the line up can be enormous.

Shop (or just admire) jubilant Jordaan

Not far from Anne Frank’s House, you’ll find one of Amsterdam’s most beloved neighbourhoods – Jordaan. Honestly, after spending just an hour or so here I was ready to pack up and rent an apartment here. The atmosphere is lively and creative, and it seems like every shopfront is filled with a fabulous cafe, boutique or small art gallery.

Admire the lights and culinary delights

After crossing off some of Amsterdam’s most famous sights on our whirlwind bike tour, the sun was setting but the city certainly had no intention of an early night. 

Each winter, Amsterdam hosts a dazzling light festival to bring extra joy and inspiration to the chilly winter. The main event is beautiful installations set out throughout the city, but the whole capital seems to get in on the fun and there is an abundance of fairylights glimmering along the streets. There’s about 30 exhibitions which are all staggeringly beautiful – I soon forgot all about my frosty fingertips and was simply enchanted by the beautiful displays.

I really recommend trying to visit in winter to see them, but if you can’t – don’t fear. There are plenty of other amazing things to do in Amsterdam at night, from attending a fancy orchestral soiree at the Concertgebouw to dancing at one of the city’s many famed nightclubs. Of course, if you’re planning a big night you’ll want to swap your bike for an Uber.

There’s never a bad time to visit Jordaan (especially if you love trendy cafes as much as I do), but if you’re there on a Monday you’ll enjoy a special treat. Between 9am and 1pm, there’s the Westerstraat Market when you can buy a dazzling array of clothes, shoes, jewellery and other items from stylish sellers.

However you fill your night(s) in Amsterdam, enjoying the city’s gastronomy also can’t be missed. Whether it’s local bites or multicultural options, Amsterdam certainly delivers. We were sure to try a few festive favourites, including sweet deep fried treats, olieballen  and appelbeignets (both delicious). Indeed, Amsterdam is a year-round paradise for sweet lovers – be sure not to leave without sampling the famed Stroopwafel – it’s the perfect note to end a wonderful day on.

Mads Nordsveen founder of Visit Magazine in Amsterdam